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Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 | Keiller Leadership Academy, a charter school in Southeast San Diego, recently put out a request for proposals to handle its custodial needs.

The San Diego Unified School District and various companies put in bids for the work. The district’s bid was the costliest and it wasn’t accepted. A company, Jan-Pro, put in a bid to do the work for $18,000 per year less and it was accepted.

Principal Patricia Ladd said most everyone is in agreement that the school, which last year became a charter, has never been cleaner.

A school can do a lot with an extra $18,000, and Keiller’s move to competitively bid certain services like that is indicative of the kind of innovative changes that are occurring within the public school system because of charter schools. It has been almost exactly one year since Keiller and Gompers Charter Middle School became independently run institutions and the results, so far, are encouraging.

At Gompers – a school once plagued by violence – only 275 students were suspended last year compared to more than 1,000 the year before. And as officials at charter schools parse through their recently arrived test scores, they are pleased with the apparent improvements.

The leaders of the charter school movement in San Diego have been encouraged by their successes. The district, begrudgingly at times, has found itself obligated to accommodate them. But no practical reason exists for the relationship between the charter schools and the district to be abrasive. It is time that any remaining conflict be put to rest.

The district must learn not just to tolerate charter schools, but accept them as part of the permanent education landscape – as something that contributes to the district’s overall educational goal rather than distracts from it.

Other school districts have successfully learned to do so.

Unfortunately, Keiller, Gompers and others like the King-Chavez Academy still receive unwelcome surprises from district officials, who are clearly either unprepared, or reluctant, to accept the development of charter schools.

On a daily basis, charter schools face a bevy of important decisions about budget, personnel and student issues, yet the district has an unfortunate habit of changing its mind, working in secrecy and presenting the young institutions with new requirements or drastic increases in fees for services. Gompers, for example, painstakingly worked out its budget only to receive an unexpected bill for special education services from the district that seems to have no origin or explanation attached. Keiller has been asked to pay an exorbitant fee to use extra empty classrooms within its own facility.

Behind closed doors, the district has begun to hammer out a new memorandum of understanding about charter schools, but without the input of charter schools themselves.

Even if these are not hostile moves, at best they are the awkward fits and starts of a district still trying to decide how it can handle the new and innovative changes within it. That decision can easily be made with the right tools. A functioning and active liaison between the district’s leadership and the boards and officers of the charter schools is one. Yet, it’s only now being developed and appropriately staffed.

Communication from the district to the charters has been dysfunctional and has caused more consternation than necessary. Some of the most heated conflicts over the last year could have easily been avoided with well-noticed meetings and discussions.

One year ago, a diverse and impressive array of state and local officials gathered at Gompers to celebrate its first day of classes as a charter school. It represented a moment of hope for a community and a badly neglected school. As the new school year begins, district officials must remember that the enthusiasm for that kind of change won’t just go away and it shouldn’t just be accommodated.

It should be embraced.

voiceofsandiego.org

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