Nicole Tempel Assisi, founder and CEO of a proposed charter school called Thrive, showed up Jan. 7 at the San Diego Unified school board meeting expecting good news.

After all, Thrive’s petition to open a charter school in Mission Valley looked good. Assisi and other school leaders had spent months working with district staff, and the district committee that evaluates petitions had green-lighted Thrive, recommending it for a five-year charter.

Assisi had obtained necessary signatures from parents who were interested in enrolling their children in the school. For added support, Thrive-backers did what any group does when they want to show the school board they mean business: They appeared at the meeting wearing matching T-shirts.

Even Superintendent Cindy Marten vouched for her staff’s recommendation – if they approved it, she approved it.

Marten had a program manager who evaluates petitions explain how rigorous the evaluation process is: The applications pass through a dozen departments, from finance to special education, before they’re finally stamped. District staff and charter school administrators interview petitioners.

Thrive made the cut. But just before the group could kick off the celebration, the board abruptly cut off the music and denied the charter in a 3-2 vote.

Despite the fact the district recommended Thrive for approval, a few of the staff’s findings didn’t persuade school board trustee John Lee Evans, who first moved to deny the charter.

For instance, Thrive had once submitted a petition to San Diego Unified at the same time it submitted one in another district. For Evans, this spelled “bad faith in the local community.”

Evans also cited three similar charter schools that didn’t deliver on the number of students it promised to recruit, and Thrive couldn’t guarantee its case would prove different.

Trustees Marne Foster and Richard Barrera sided with Evans, and the petition was shot down.  Just like that, it was over for Thrive. For the time being, anyway.

But perhaps more interesting than the board’s decision to deny the charter was the conversation that surrounded it.

San Diego has become charter school saturated, Evans and Barrera said, and we need to raise the bar on charters before approving schools with a high potential to fail.

But why move the bar now, in the midst of the process for this particular charter school? Evans disagrees that there’s been a sudden shift. It’s more of “gradual evolution,” he said, one that started with the decision to offer petitioners less help in completing their charter school applications.

Holding charters’ hands from beginning to end doesn’t ensure that they’re appropriate candidates and is analogous to a college admission officer working closely with a college applicant, he said.

The explanation for the denial wasn’t entirely clear cut, however, and a closer look shows three reasons why the decision could be a big deal for the future of charters in San Diego.

The school board bucked district staff’s recommendations.

It appears the district staff members had a high degree of confidence when they recommended Thrive.

Staff members had three options: They could have denied the charter, granted a conditional approval (to see if a school’s funding came through, for example) or approved the charter on a one- to five-year basis. Staff members went with full approval for the first five years.

School boards don’t often vote against district staff’s recommendations, but it does happen.

Miles Durfee, a regional director of the California Charter Schools Association, said this was the first time in his year and half with CCSA that he’s seen a charter school turned away after district staff gave the thumbs-up.

Durfee, who vouched for Thrive at the board meeting, questioned whether the decision goes against the spirit of the Charter Schools Act. The law encourages school boards to approve charters unless the petitions go against one of five narrowly defined criterion, he said.

Durfee said in this case, he didn’t think the board’s argument was very compelling and wondered whether it was “more of a political decision than a factual one.”

Aside from verifiable signatures from parents or teachers who are interested in being involved in the charter, staff also looks at the soundness of a proposed charter school’s  educational program as well as its demonstrative likelihood to succeed.

In short, if the petition stands up in all five areas, the board is acting outside of its authority to deny the petition for other reasons, Durfee said.

Ricardo Soto, general counsel for the CCSA, said that a school like Thrive has a good chance on winning its petition if it appeals to the county or state education boards.

Evans disagrees that he was acting outside of his role. On the contrary, he said: He was doing his job, which is to use the staff’s findings to reach a decision about a charter school’s viability.

“We’ve seen that when charter schools fail, the students suffer,” Evans told VOSD.

Thrive was denied after making adjustments recommended by the district.

Assisi, who said she was “completely shocked” by the decision, spent several months working with district staff, adjusting her petition based its recommendations.

For example, she said her original intention was to open two charters schools, one in San Diego, and one in neighboring La Mesa-Spring Valley. Right before that petition was to be submitted, she said district staff told her the simultaneous submission might work against her, and she decided to withdraw both petitions.

This time around, she stuck to San Diego Unified. Instead of proposing a charter school for City Heights, which is already served by a large number of charters, she planned for Mission Valley.

At the school board meeting, Barrera seemed confused by all the changes, saying there was “too much ambiguity” in the petition.

Everybody seemed to agree on one point: The district staff, as well as the petitioner, had worked very hard in the submission and evaluation process. What nobody talked about was how much time or money was spent along the way.

The board has approved “less sophisticated” charters in the past.

In the past, the San Diego Unified school board has approved a number of “mom and pop charters,” said school board trustee Scott Barnett — those that have enthusiastic support from parents and educators, but not much experience running charters.

“Thrive definitely seems like it has more going for it than a number of charters that we’ve approved,” he said at the meeting.

Assisi isn’t exactly a rookie. She worked at High Tech High in its early years, and has served as a founding principal at three Los Angeles charter schools. She and Thrive leaders were awarded a grant, funded by the Gates and Broad foundations, for the innovative model that Thrive promised.

Unfortunately for Assisi, Barrera and Evans said it’s time for a change in what we consider a viable charter school petition.

“I think there’s been an evolution,” Evans said, adding that San Diego’s history of being “one of the most charter friendly districts in the nation,” has given the district enough experience to know what works and what doesn’t.

Evans said that when he first came to the board, the tendency was to automatically approve charters if they met criteria on paper. Evans said that it seemed like the decision was already made.

“At that point we asked, what are we even doing here?”

Indeed. The board has approved less sophisticated charters than Thrive, which might actually work against Assisi.

The district has seen a number of charters fail in recent years. In 2011 there was Promise, which had its charter revoked for violating state laws. And within the past month, Iftin University Prep High School announced it was closing its doors, sending students away in the middle of the school year.

Evans said that it’s difficult to close or deny a charter school when there are people who are trying hard and asking for one more chance, but “we really have to be hard-nosed about it sometimes in terms of the interest of the kids.”

But Durfee said that it isn’t fair to hold past schools against Thrive.

“It’s not really appropriate to compare a petitioner to others,” he told VOSD. To say that Thrive won’t match its enrollment projections because similar schools haven’t met them “places the burden on the petitioners and is not something that they can prove,” he said.

Before the vote, Barnett said the board needed to consider “what type of precedent we’re setting in doing this,” and that there needs to be consistency moving forward.

As for Assisi, there’s still more work to be done. She said she and others from Thrive are working with CCSA legal counsel and discussing their options.

“We’re really encouraged by Cindy Marten’s support,” she said. “We’re still committed to serving kids. I don’t think this the end of the road for us.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story indicated that district staff could deny, approve or conditionally approve Thrive’s petition. District staff can only recommend that a charter be denied, approved or conditionally approved.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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