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The San Diego Unified school board is opening up talks with two embattled charter schools about how to democratically elect their governing boards. And it is pressing another, newly forming charter to do the same if it wants to go longer without having to petition the school district to stay open.

It is a controversial step that the charters could easily wave off. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run by their own chosen boards whose members are often chosen, not elected, by other board members. While some charters opt to have representatives who are chosen by parents or teachers, it is not required by law.

That means charter boards can sometimes veer away from what their communities want, making it hard to say who really represents the schools. The question of who speaks for two charters, Tubman and Promise, has loomed large as San Diego Unified investigates them for alleged violations of their own rules.

Promise has been riven by bitter arguments about whether its principal and the charter board are making the right decisions; upset parents there allege they and their children have been harassed if they disagree with the principal on a long list of decisions from staffing to schedules. Tubman is locked in a labor battle over whether a teacher was fired fairly.

School board President Richard Barrera, who proposed opening up talks at a board meeting Tuesday, said setting up a democratic process to choose boards could help ensure that publicly funded charter schools are more accountable to the public. He stressed that the move was separate from the ongoing investigations.

“Whoever happens to control the board of directors at any particular time seems to be able to force its decisions on the entire school community,” Barrera said.

While charters are independently run, school districts decide whether to allow them to open in the first place and review them periodically to decide if they should stay open. The San Diego Unified board has recently pressed for a tighter leash on charter schools, monitoring them more closely.

The school district is not mandating that the charters start electing their boards, but is just asking its staff to begin discussions with the schools about how they might do so. The charters could ignore it. Promise and Tubman leaders were upset with the idea, complaining it had been sprung on them.

The investigations mean tensions are already running high with the school district. “Barrera, you have shown your incompetence to lead,” Promise parent and charter board member Jose Villaescuza argued at the Tuesday school board meeting. “You must resign immediately!”

San Diego Unified also asked a newly forming charter, Girard Charter Middle School, to assure them that it would democratically elect its board members as one of several conditions to get a five-year-agreement to open and run their school. If not, Girard would only get an agreement for three years and have to go back before the San Diego Unified board sooner to get approval to stay open.

Lisa Berlanga, regional director for the California Charter Schools Association, said the school district is micromanaging charter schools and overstepping the law. There is nothing wrong with having a democratic election, Berlanga said, but it isn’t up to the district to push the idea on charter boards. Now the question is whether charters will bite — or set the suggestion aside.

Disclosure: Girard Charter Middle School is funded in part by the Girard Foundation, which has also given grants to voiceofsandiego.org.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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