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Wednesday, March 26, 2008 | Three years after a Logan Heights middle school split from the school district, striking its own path as a nonprofit-run charter school, its problems have multiplied, prompting calls for the school to relinquish its independence and return to the district’s control.

Four principals have overseen Memorial Academy of Learning and Technology in three years. One left, later returned, and resigned again. Test scores have sunk. Turnover plagues its governing board. And its nonprofit status — the hallmark of plans to fix the school — has not been approved by the Internal Revenue Service, a potential stumbling block as San Diego Unified eyes the school’s progress.

A majority of teachers are now pressing for San Diego Unified to tuck the school back under its wing and liquidate Memorial’s governing board. If the charter dissolves, a desirable magnet program might locate at Memorial, a factor that has fueled their fervor. A vocal group of parents backs the idea. But the choice isn’t theirs to make.

Relinquishing the charter is up to Memorial’s board, an ever-shifting group whose legitimacy has been repeatedly questioned by teachers and some parents. Three years ago, its selection was struck with controversy as an activist group took the lion’s share of seats. Fifteen members have cycled through the board in three years. The board’s size has fluctuated, dropping precipitously from its intended 11 seats to a five-person body today.

Thus far, that board hasn’t joined the popular push to surrender control of Memorial. Its president, Benjamin Prado, cautioned parents that the magnet, though appealing, is not guaranteed to locate in Logan Heights if the charter dissolves. Against teachers’ calls for urgency, he stresses deliberation, saying the decision to revert back to district control must emerge through dialogue.

“It’s still a question as to whether or not we are willing to give up the charter,” said Benjamin Prado, the Memorial board president. “Our objective is to continue the dialogue. It’s not over.”

At Memorial, that answer has left dissatisfied parents and teachers unsure where to turn. Some complain that the board has hijacked their neighborhood school, prioritizing the charter’s perpetuation over the will of parents and teachers.

As they grapple over Memorial’s future, the question of whether salvation lies within San Diego Unified or outside the system remains complex, inherited from the school’s long, frustrated history. Even those who want to rejoin the school district remain wary, cautioning that district control is no panacea.

“It’s easy to blame the charters when they don’t do well. But it’s a longtime problem that goes back to the district,” said Ben Rivera, a classroom assistant who works with disabled children at Memorial. For him, the fault ultimately lies with San Diego Unified, for approving Memorial’s bid for independence in the first place. “And it’s easy to subcontract out the school to a group of people who probably shouldn’t have been in education to begin with.”

Memorial’s charter isn’t up for review until 2010, but the chance to snag a district-run magnet program in Logan Heights lends urgency to the question of whether or not the Memorial board will relinquish control of the school. The technology-themed magnet, Millennial Tech Middle School, is due to open this fall. If the charter remains, the district is unlikely to choose Memorial as its site. Meanwhile, parents in another neighborhood are vying to locate the program in a now-vacant school, as originally planned.

Memorial is a charter school, run independently with public funds. Charters are meant to provide a free alternative to district-run schools, unfettered by school district rules such as centralized hiring or union contracts. (Memorial, unlike some charter schools, opted to allow teachers to unionize.)

In Logan Heights, however, Memorial is effectively the neighborhood school, not an alternative. The closest district-run public middle school is Roosevelt, on the northern end of Balboa Park. There are few other middle school options in the neighborhood, save for King-Chavez Academy of Excellence, a charter school that shares Memorial’s site on Logan Avenue, and the Logan and Perkins elementary schools, which are expanding into K-8 schools.

As a result, Memorial’s fate is tied inextricably to that of Logan Heights, a largely low-income, Latino enclave where education is seen as a lifeline out of poverty and political disempowerment.

The school district and its board say they have few options short of revoking the school’s charter: a lengthy, politically explosive process.

The California Charter School Association, citing “bad charters” as a black eye for the charter movement, supports revoking Memorial’s charter. District staffers charged with overseeing charter schools are aware of the school’s uncertain nonprofit status and are preparing a report to the San Diego Unified board about the issues troubling Memorial. Whether they will seek revocation remains to be seen.

“What can we do? You cannot force a nonprofit to dissolve,” said Rachel Ortiz, executive director and founder of Barrio Station, a Logan Heights center for at-risk youth. Ortiz wants the charter to dissolve, making way for a district-run magnet school. “If they want to be a failure, with a handful of captive-audience students, you can’t stop them.”

No Child Left Behind Prompted Controversial Transformation

Years ago, when Memorial chose to go charter, Logan Heights residents felt the school district had failed them, and sought solutions outside the system. In 1995, the school first became an “arm of the district” charter school, whose payroll was still handled by San Diego Unified. Instead of a governing board, it was run by an internal management team made of students, parents and school employees.

Test scores were low, but crept upward over the years. The increases were too small, however, to meet requirements set by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires schools that repeatedly miss testing goals to restructure. But what restructuring means is largely left up to schools to define.

In 2005, hewing to the federal law, the school transformed again. Forming a 501(c)3 was the crux of Memorial’s plan to restructure. Memorial opted to convert into a nonprofit corporation, taking on more independence, more responsibility, and more risk. Independence also ushered in Memorial’s first governing board. The new board was elected through “serial procedure,” a recognized method that elects trustees one at a time, allowing each new member to immediately vote on the next.

The result was a Memorial board weighted with activists. Members of Union del Barrio, a Mexican liberation group, landed six spots on an 11-person board. Prado is a member. On its website, the activist group pledges to defend ethnically Mexican people from economic exploitation and political oppression, and holds that the southwestern United States is Mexican territory, stolen in 1848. Anonymous teachers condemned the overhaul as a “charade” in a letter to the new board, signed “Friends of Memorial.”

“It was a power grab,” said Marco Curiel, who served as the principal at the time. He later returned, only to resign this month after being placed on administrative leave. “It was very much like a coup. As a principal, I was kept in the dark. I felt betrayed.”

David Guthrie, the school’s first chief business officer, joined Memorial as an outsider to Logan Heights. Union del Barrio represented one philosophical faction in the community, he said, but its politics didn’t translate into steering the school ideologically. Teachers agreed, saying the philosophy hasn’t been imposed on classrooms. Prado noted that while Union del Barrio members serve on the board, none are directly representing the activist group.

But the predominance of Union del Barrio members on Memorial’s board has nonetheless spurred uneasiness among teachers, who claim Union del Barrio has made the school a pet project, instead of putting the school first. Others said the problem isn’t the board presence of Union del Barrio, but the absence of educators familiar with the nuts and bolts of how schools work.

“Too many people with no educational expertise are making decisions that touch the lives of children every day,” said Rey Hernandez, a former Memorial teacher who quit the board this year. “And their views do play a role.”

Prado recently pushed for Memorial to expand electives, including a class in bicultural studies, Hernandez said. “We were in such financial straits, trying to make ends meet, and he still pushed to allocate funds directly to teach that specific subject — not even electives in general.”

“It’s very easy to get caught up in the movement,” Hernandez said. “And all of a sudden, it starts driving you. That’s where the disconnect is right now.”

Prado defended the vote that created Memorial’s board, saying serial procedure was chosen by a triad of interim board members. Charter school experts say the method isn’t unusual. But the controversy that swirled over the board’s genesis has never dissipated, with parents saying the board isn’t accountable to the public.

Since the first board was elected, members have flitted in and out of the school. Teacher turnover has also been dramatic, said Tracey Makings, Memorial’s teacher union representative. Four principals have led the school; Curiel led it twice.

Turnover Hits the School

Soon after Memorial’s board was elected, a procession of members resigned.

That spring, a number of district teachers weren’t asked to return to the school, prompting a staff exodus. By fall of 2005, the school’s interim principal, Sylvia Pedroarena, had split. Pedroarena’s replacement, Robert Gallardo, spent a year at Memorial, then left. Curiel returned from a stint teaching fifth grade. Meanwhile, Memorial trustees slogged through three to five hour meetings, often twice a week. San Diego Unified’s board, in contrast, typically holds seven-to-eight hour meetings twice a month.

“We weren’t prepared for what it meant to be a completely independent school,” Prado said.

Another board member quit as Curiel returned. Two more exited this winter as Curiel was put on administrative leave, then quit.

Today’s board consists of five people: Prado, two community members also linked to Union del Barrio, Alberto Ochoa, a San Diego State professor and the sole current educator on the board, who joined in September, and parent Paloma Diaz, who joined in January. Throughout the turmoil, Prado has remained at the board’s helm. Under the school’s bylaws, board members are limited to two-year terms. Explaining his now three-year term, Prado said the bylaws allow him a second term. No such provision could be found in the policies provided by Prado.

That board’s power over Memorial’s future, combined with the inability of parents and teachers to choose its membership, has some critics questioning whether Memorial is genuinely accountable to the public.

“No, we don’t have a public school here. I don’t care what it says out front,” said Rivera, the classroom aide. “This has ceased to be a public school.”

Sinking Test Scores and Low Enrollment

Since the school incorporated in 2005, Memorial has been battered by challenges. Makings estimated that up to 60 percent of Memorial teachers were replaced between 2005 and 2006. Enrollment plunged this year, when San Diego Unified stopped automatically enrolling students in charter schools in neighborhoods where they had no other public option. That sapped the school’s budget, prompting Memorial to lay off custodians and a vice principal. Memorial also tried to fire teachers midyear, but was rebuffed by the teachers union.

Meanwhile, test scores sunk. The board is critical of standardized testing, calling it a biased measure of student performance that doesn’t reflect the progress made by students struggling with English. After peaking in 2005, test scores dropped in each successive year, leaving Memorial below the rising bar set by the federal No Child Left Behind law. Last school year, its scores were among the lowest in San Diego Unified, as measured by the percentage of students meeting testing goals in English and math.

Amid the school’s fiscal and academic crisis, the board’s spending and staffing choices attracted criticism from teachers. Before cutting one vice principal, Memorial had nearly double the administrator-to-student ratio of San Diego Unified schools. Tax statements show that between 2006 and 2007 the school significantly ramped up pay for its vice principals, replaced and renamed “associate directors.” In 2006, Memorial shelled out $125,807 for two vice principals; in 2007, two new associate directors made $192,760.

Even its parents are divided. Memorial has two parent groups: the Parent Inclusion and Advocacy Committee, an internal school group, and the Parent Teacher Student Association, which is linked to the national Parent Teacher Association. The former has been largely supportive of the board, while the latter’s president calls for Prado’s removal, and the disintegration of the charter.

“Our autonomy, good or bad, is the only thing we have now,” said PIAC member Elsa Mercado, speaking in Spanish. “Nobody guaranteed us that if we get rid of the charter school, we’ll become a magnet. Our school will disappear.”

The school’s murky nonprofit status overshadows its plight. Most organizations take two steps to gain valid nonprofit status: forming a California public benefit corporation with the Secretary of State’s office, and filing as a tax-exempt 501(c)3 with the IRS. Memorial has done the first step, but neglected the second. The school has reapplied for 501(c)3 status, he said, but has yet to be approved.

It is unclear whether Memorial’s failure to become a 501(c)3 could impact its charter status. Nonprofit law attorney Thomas Wrobel said the lack of 501(c)3 status “isn’t necessarily a problem.” If the IRS approves Memorial, he said, the 501(c)3 status will apply retroactively to the date it formed.

Eric Premack, co-director of the nonprofit Charter School Development Center in Sacramento, said some organizations are presumptively tax-exempt, and don’t need to file a 501(c)3 to duck taxes. Churches and charter schools are “tweeners,” for whom the law is unclear, Premack said.

“There’s ongoing debate in this arena,” he said. Due to that doubt, the vast majority of schools he counsels take both steps to become nonprofits. “This area of the law has never been fully fleshed out or explored.”

Tad Parzen, a legal consultant who worked as San Diego Unified’s general counsel during the superintendency of Alan Bersin, said Memorial’s failure to obtain 501(c)3 status is a red flag.

“It certainly calls [the Memorial board’s] legitimacy into question,” Parzen said.

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

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