Monday, April 30, 2007 | Since it opened as a charter school seven years ago, the King/Chavez Academy for Excellence has made a name for itself in succeeding against the odds.

Located on the site of the Calvary Baptist Church in Barrio Logan, the public elementary and middle school has achieved the highest test scores in the area without having access to many of the facilities enjoyed by public schools, including gymnasiums, water fountains and full-sized classrooms. And, as it turns out, without having the necessary city building permits.

Off the Chart-er

  • The Issue: The King/Chavez Academy for Excellence has asked the San Diego Unified School District to override the city’s land-use laws and allow the school to remain open without the necessary permits.
  • What It Means: Under a new state law, charter schools must occupy facilities that meet state building code. The district, which previously did not check to see that charters complied with zoning and building laws, says it may start doing so now.
  • The Bigger Picture: Last year, the city’s charters sued the district, accusing it of violating state laws that give charter schools access to public facilities.

Because the school never complied with the city’s zoning laws, it was never required to evaluate the seismic safety of its structures, the adequacy of landscaping and parking or school impact on the nearby environment and quality of life. Some school staff members wonder whether such a review would have discovered the faulty wiring that later ignited a minor fire at the campus.

But now, as the school plans its expansion and new construction, it has appealed to the San Diego Unified School District for help, asking its board members to make use of an obscure statute that allows school districts to override local zoning laws and exempt the school from the permitting requirements. If the school board agrees, it will be the first time in school district officials’ memory that San Diego Unified has gotten involved in the city of San Diego’s land-use decisions.

If the board doesn’t agree, and the academy stays at Calvary Baptist next year, the school may get shut down.

“The school board has a moral obligation to say, ‘These people deserve our help. They’ve been doing a good job,’” said W. James Smith, Calvary Baptist’s pastor who helped found the school and previously sat on its board of directors.

School officials say they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation: Under a new state law that came into effect in January, all charter schools in California must occupy facilities that meet the state’s buildings codes. The buildings currently at King/Chavez do not, said Tim Wolf, the school’s chief executive officer.

To build upgraded facilities, the school applied to the city of San Diego for the necessary permits, only to find out that the current buildings never had any to begin with. City planning staff has sent the school 24 pages worth of changes it says are needed to bring the grounds in compliance with city codes, calling on the school to fund improvements to nearby roads, redesign its buildings to reduce bulk, and carry out a seismic safety study because the school is located in one of the city’s fault zones. The staff has also asked the school to pay impact fees from the development. Complying with all of the requirements, Wolf estimates, would cost almost $1 million and would bankrupt the school.

“For five years, they have never gotten a … permit, and no one ever questioned them,” said Wolf, who was hired by the school last year.

District officials say they had no idea the school was operating in violation of zoning laws, and don’t know if any of the district’s other 35 charter schools are in the same position. Under state law, charter schools receive public tax dollars but operate without many of the requirements imposed on regular public schools. In San Diego, more than one out of every 10 students attends one.

“Five years ago, this was not something that we checked for,” said Jack Brandais, a spokesman for the school district. “We’re going back now and reviewing those procedures to see what we can do for future charter schools.”

Though the school has promised to indemnify the school district in case of injuries or lawsuits if the school board issues a zoning waiver, board members seem hesitant to grant the request, and district lawyers remain uncertain about how much power the district has over local land-use laws. After a lengthy hearing on the issue last week, the board postponed a final vote until May 8.

The questions about the King/Chavez facility have arisen a year after the city’s charter schools, and the state association that represents them, sued the school district, accusing it of violating state laws that give charter schools equal access to school facilities.

Brandais points out that the district has also offered to lease King/Chavez part of the nearby Memorial Academy of Learning and Technology, another charter school that operates on a district-owned campus. Calvary Baptist’s Smith and some parents say they opened King/Chavez specifically to avoid sending their kids to Memorial, which has a reputation in the neighborhood for high gang activity and crime.

The pastor, who is trying to persuade the school’s directors to renew the lease with his church, says the district has offered King/Chavez “a choice to go to gang land.”

Though the new lease with the church would include many facility improvements and increased maintenance, some of the 30 teachers at King/Chavez remain worried about the conditions of the campus.

“It is not doing our students justice to give them an unsafe place to learn,” said Marco Garcia Jr., a social studies teacher, at an emotional meeting of the school’s board of directors last week.

As for the zoning exemption, Garcia said: “It’s just a matter of time before one of these waivers comes to bite us in the behind.”

Though the board of directors meeting was called to decide whether the school should reject the district’s offer of the Memorial campus, things quickly turned contentious when Smith stood to speak during the public input portion of the meeting. During a 20 minute speech that resembled a sermon, the pastor accused school officials of colluding with local boosters to move the school off church grounds so the area could be redeveloped, among other charges of corruption and deception.

“It’s about money,” Smith boomed into the microphone. “How can we make an intelligent decision about this without knowing who the lenders are and who we’re going to bed with?”

Throughout Smith’s speech, several members of the audience clapped their hands and chanted, “Amen!”

At the end, the board of directors postponed a final vote on the lease.

“At this moment, I’m feeling that a whole lot of lying has been going on here,” school director Carol Williams said.

Parents, many of whom speak only Spanish, left the meeting confused. Though one parent served as an interpreter during the first minutes of the discussion, the directors and public speakers soon grew inpatient as the conversation became more heated and stopped pausing for the interpretation.

“We want to stay at Calvary,” said Sandra Soto, a parent organizer who said a third of the parents at the 300-student school have signed a petition to keep the school where it is.

However, Soto said parents did not previously know about the concerns with the safety of the facilities or about the school’s zoning problems.

“We don’t know the truth,” she said, explaining that parents were worried that all sides were distorting and hiding the facts for personal gain.

Like the district school board, and the school’s board of directors, Soto said the parents would spend the next week mulling their options.

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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