Monday, April 03, 2006 | Charter school enthusiasts are an optimistic lot. No matter how dark the cloud, they always look for the silver lining.

After the last facilities offer to charters from the San Diego Unified School District on March 28, an offer that was clearly hostile and unaccommodating, charter administrators and supporters expressed relief that it wasn’t worse.

“I felt okay about the tenor of the board meeting,” said Byron King, head of O’Farrell Community Charter School. “There’s been a lot of movement in the past month.”

Other charter directors echoed these sentiments and were pleased that the latest decisions of SDUSD’s Board of Education weren’t as bad as they could have been, given the dreadful start of the annual facilities request process in February.

But that doesn’t mean the board’s recent actions were cause for rejoicing. Charter leaders remain concerned about facility space for the coming school year. And they know that the district holds all the cards. To criticize SDUSD’s shabby offer and call it what it is, a major roadblock to student success, can jeopardize their schools’ future and put children already in a precarious situation at further risk.

The final offer made to the district’s charter schools at the March 28 board meeting was shameful. By denying classroom space to charter schools in such a devious way, the district twisted the law under Proposition 39 and altered its intent, which is to provide charter schools with greater access to district facilities, not less.

One of the findings and declarations of Proposition 39, approved by voters in 2000, is: “Students in public charter schools should be entitled to reasonable access to a safe and secure learning environment.” Access is critical because inadequate facilities is the primary reason charter schools fail, according to the California Charter Schools Association.

Districts are required by law to view charter school students as equal with students in district-run schools and must share their public school facilities fairly. This premise should be at the heart of all facilities decisions.

But what’s happening at SDUSD is a perversion of Proposition 39, by denying rather than promoting access to facilities.

“We’re following a process,” SDUSD superintendent Carl Cohn told speakers at the March 28 board meeting. “We’re just following Proposition 39 regulations here.”

But this comment is disingenuous. The district could have chosen to follow Proposition 39 regulations in a way that supports charter efforts rather than undermining them. To use the legislation to restrict access to classrooms is a flagrant violation of the spirit of the law, approved by California voters, which was written to address precisely this sort of unwillingness to support charter school efforts.

“The school district has the option on how to make facilities available,” said Gary Larson of the CCSA. “They could give them to charters for free.”

Because charter schools are funded by the state on a per-pupil basis, the money charters receive is money lost to the district, which already suffers from less state money as a result of decreasing enrollment. So no one, including Larson, expects the district to offer facilities to charter schools at no charge.

However, besides taking 3 percent off the bottom line from charter schools, the district proposed last week that charters pay an additional cost for using classrooms on their sites that the district claims are surplus – a proposal labeled double-dipping by many charter supporters.

The district recommended leasing to the charters the “extra” classrooms on their sites at a rate of $2.75 per square foot, which, for a typical 900-square-foot classroom, comes to about $2,500.

Trustee Katherine Nakamura objected to the fundamental fairness of denying charter schools access to classrooms they are currently using, “unless you pay us rent for a space you’re already paying rent for,” she said.

The board approved a motion to accept the district’s housing charts that allocated a reduced number of classrooms to charter schools than many are currently occupying, but the board tabled staff’s recommendation to approve the extra fee for “surplus” classrooms.

Board members pulled the per-classroom fee from the original motion after Nakamura raised the specter of a public relations nightmare: the visual of padlocked classrooms on charter school sites, unavailable for use by a stingy, unsupportive school district that refuses to allow charter schools the right to use its own classrooms while allowing district-run schools full access to under-utilized campuses.

“I think we’ve got a double standard,” Nakamura said. “I just don’t see how this is good for the kids.”

“There might be an accommodation,” said trustee John de Beck, who agreed to pull the per-classroom fee section from the motion. “My personal take is that it’s negotiable.”

That portion of the motion will be reviewed in the coming weeks by district staff, and charter schools are bracing themselves for the final recommendation.

Destabilizing the Charter Effort

The district further seeks to weaken charters by imposing a fee for the use of the “surplus” classrooms, causing undue financial hardship on schools already struggling to survive on fewer dollars than regular district-run schools are given.

Keiller Leadership Academy, for example, is currently the sole occupant of its site, and is using all 33 of its classrooms. Keiller, a grades 6-8 middle school, has significantly raised student achievement since its conversion to charter last fall.

For the 2006-2007 school year, the school projected an enrollment of 564 students. The district, however, calculated a total enrollment for Keiller next year of 424 students, using mysterious, undisclosed Average Daily Attendance formulas.

The lower ADA, coupled with a formula for high average class sizes that places 28 to 32 students in a classroom at the middle school level, works out to fewer classrooms needed by the charters, according to the district’s highly-paid outside lawyers who have been working on the issue for months now.

Over the objections of Keiller director Patricia Ladd, her school has been allotted 20 classrooms at its site for next year, leaving 13 vacant. To lease back the 13 classrooms would cost just under $33,000 per year – about the price of a teacher.

“You’re doing this to a school that has proven success,” said Eva Contreras, who has children attending Keiller and serves as the school’s administrative assistant. She labeled the district’s actions an injustice and “blatant discrimination.”

Ladd objected to the district’s formulas, and other charter advocates quietly agreed. “I share those concerns,” said Tim Wolf, lead principal of the King/Chavez charter schools.

SDUSD claims it is using the same formula for charters that it uses for its other public school students and is applying the terms of Proposition 39 evenly and fairly. This reasoning is flawed in two ways.

Firstly, many of these charters were transformed from failing public schools into charter schools specifically to address chronically low-performing academic achievement. Going charter was one way the district determined that these students could be rescued.

The charter plans the school board endorsed included unique programs for improving student achievement that would foster a culture of learning. A key ingredient of these board-approved programs was small class sizes.

“You approved our charter which called for reduced class sizes and electives,” Ladd said. “A 5-0 vote approved that. So we reopened as something completely different.”

No one can expect to improve desperately low achievement by placing 32 7th-graders who read at a 3rd-grade level together in one classroom. Smaller class sizes and more individualized attention are critical components required to raise academic performance.

Secondly, the application of the student-teacher class size ratios is inconsistently applied, contradicting the district’s assertion of evenhandedness in compliance with Proposition 39. Many of the district’s own schools are experiencing decreased enrollment, leaving some sites with low class sizes and lots of classrooms available to students. The district is not suggesting that these schools cram their kids into fewer classrooms and padlock the others.

The silver lining charter advocates are focused on now can be summed up in board president Luis Acle’s question about the extra classrooms to SDUSD’s legal counsel. “Can we decide not to charge at all?” he asked.

How the district responds to this question in the next month will reveal how much it cares about student achievement for all its students, not just those in district-run schools.

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at

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