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Three years ago, mothers and fathers pleaded for the school board to fix Memorial Academy, a Logan Heights charter school. Its scores were sagging. Principals came and went.

But San Diego Unified said that short of shutting down the school, it couldn’t step in. Memorial closed on its own. And that was typical. When aggravated parents or teachers have piped up with complaints about charter schools in the past, former school board member John de Beck said their worries were often outside the district’s control. Charters are independent, he explained, free to run themselves as they wish.

Now a new school board is seeking to keep its more than 40 charter schools on a tighter leash before problems emerge, testing its powers with new rules. Charter backers complain that the board is meddling and micromanaging them, reacting to a few scattered problems by making sweeping changes.

“I’m on orange alert,” said Cinda Doughty, a longtime charter school principal who recently petitioned the school district to start a new charter. “They’re making blanket policies based on kneejerk reactions. It’s a huge pendulum swing from the past.”

The tug-of-war over how tightly San Diego Unified should regulate its charters goes to the very heart of the charter idea. Charters are public schools independently run by their own boards. They are supposed to enjoy greater freedom to experiment and innovate. They can set a different bar for expelling or suspending kids, opt to evaluate and pay teachers differently, and choose their own curriculum and rules, outside of school district restrictions.

But charters are also supposed to face greater accountability. School districts are supposed to oversee them from afar. Districts decide whether charters can open and stay open. Districts have the power to shut charters down if they mismanage money, flounder academically or trample their own rules.

However, shutting down a school is a big hammer, one San Diego Unified is loath to use unless problems are dire. That is one reason the school board now wants to set stricter rules when charters open.

For instance, school district staffers will no longer help charter hopefuls refine their applications to start new schools, letting them sink or swim instead. “If you can’t get it right, it raises some red flags about whether you can successfully run a school,” said school board President Richard Barrera.

San Diego Unified has started to give shorter terms to new charters, forcing them to come back and make a case to remain open after three years, instead of the usual five. And it wants to put its own representatives on charter boards to keep an eye on things, a little-used-provision that some charters argue sets up a conflict of interest for board members juggling loyalty to the district and the charter.

The tightening grip comes as San Diego Unified investigates two charter schools roiled by conflict. Promise Charter in Chollas View faces allegations that its principal harassed children and intimidated parents who disagreed with him on everything from scheduling to staffing. Tubman Village Charter in College Area is locked in a labor battle over whether a teacher was unfairly fired.

Principals dispute the claims. Investigations are ongoing. But the sheer rancor at the two schools has spurred the school board to prod charters to democratically elect their boards instead of letting them be appointed — something it can’t actually force on charter schools but is pushing aggressively in public.

Barrera said it would make schools funded with taxpayer money be more accountable, something he said “simply doesn’t exist right now.” Principals at Tubman and Promise were upset by the suggestion, saying it was unjustified to push changes before the investigations were even done.

And charter leaders argue that if the district starts mucking around in how they are governed, it can’t hold them accountable for results. Gary Borden, vice president of advocacy for the California Charter Schools Association, said charters are supposed to be free to make those decisions on their own.

Charters are already supposed to meet more than a dozen criteria to get approved, Borden said. “Anything that goes above and beyond that starts to creep into overregulation,” he said.

The stricter rules mark a sea change in the district’s attitude towards charters. For years, San Diego Unified had taken a laissez-faire approach to regulating its charters. Under Superintendent Alan Bersin, the school district was sometimes a cheerleader for charters, shepherding the conversion of several schools.

The next superintendent, Carl Cohn, brought in more skeptical staffers who scrapped the old policies and set out new guidelines for holding charter schools accountable. But the school board often ignored or overruled those guidelines, giving charters the green light even when school district staff urged otherwise.

“The board settled for mediocrity with a lot of charter schools,” said Peter Rivera, who helped oversee charters in San Diego Unified until he left last year. “They didn’t really ask any questions.”

Charter leaders see it differently, saying San Diego Unified was willing to work with them, batting ideas back and forth. For instance, Doughty said charters and the school district were able to strike a compromise on what happens to the assets of closed charters, deciding to send them to other charters.

But this spring when Doughty sent in her application for her new school, there was no back and forth about changes the school district wanted to make. That rankled her. “It was yes or no. Take it or leave it,” Doughty said.

The change has been swift: San Diego Unified just won an award in March from the California Charter Schools Association as a model district. Less than a month later, charter school leaders were at odds with the school board in a tense public meeting. Charter schools advocate Lisa Berlanga argued that the school board was stepping way beyond the law with its new requirements.

“That’s nice,” new school board member Scott Barnett replied. “You know, you’re not a lawyer, No. 1, and No. 2” — Barrera stopped him.

Three things are driving the change. Two new school board members were elected in November. Barnett is known as a budget hawk, Kevin Beiser is a middle school math teacher. Both have focused new attention on charter schools, questioning how things work, but Barnett in particular has aggressively pushed for tighter rules, saying he wants to ensure accountability for taxpayer dollars.

The Promise and Tubman investigations have brightened the spotlight on charters. And teachers at both schools joined the teachers union, making labor an important new player in the debate. Labor leaders applaud the push for more democratic elections at charters, even if it has little force.

“Look around the world. People are dying for democracy,” said Camille Zombro, vice president of the teachers union. “How can a charter school argue with that? They should be accountable.”

The budget crunch has also raised the stakes for the school district. Board members say they want to be sure that charter schools are equipped to survive before they’re approved.

Moises Aguirre, who helps oversee charters for the district, said some charters now believe the board is “anti-charter.” Aguirre doesn’t think that’s the case. New charters are still getting approved. “What I hear is that they want more oversight,” Aguirre said.

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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