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Strong academics have never been a concern for Old Town Academy, a San Diego Unified charter school in Middletown.

Whether it’s a product of innovative instruction, or has more to do with the fact that unlike at many traditional district schools, few OTA students live in poverty, test scores have remained consistently above the district average.

Yet the operational concerns – the practical matters of actually running a school – have posed challenges the school has yet to iron out.

That tension has played out in dramatic and odd ways at OTA. At the end of last school year, Tom Donahue, its founding principal, was fired. Then OTA moved forward on a merger with an out-of-town charter management corporation. Owing to the turmoil, the school lost its chance at $23 million – bond money the district makes available to eligible charter schools.

The issues at OTA are a microcosm of charter schools in general. Principals might get the academics right, but soon learn they don’t necessarily know how to run a school.

“We believe in activating all parts of a student’s brain,” said Jon Centofranchi, OTA’s principal who is in his first six months at the school. “Robotics and music are a big part of that, and that’s been a big focus of the school since the beginning.”

Chris Celentino, OTA’s current board chair and one of the school’s founding members, said when the school opened with a class of 180 students, half came from families that would otherwise send their kids to private schools. He attributes OTA’s ability to attract college-educated parents to its challenging and innovative curriculum.

Every several years, charter schools go through a renewal process. The San Diego Unified school board – which decides which charters can open or continue to operate in the district – looks at schools’ budgets and academics, making sure charter school leaders are delivering on what they promised when founders submitted the charter application.

This December, when OTA was up for review, the school board praised its academics. Trustee Richard Barrera said OTA represents the reason why charter schools were created in the first place: It has an innovative curriculum and a community of students, parents and teachers uniting behind a common vision.

But when school board members approved OTA to operate for another five years – several conditions, notwithstanding – the OTA community breathed a sigh of relief. The situation that came to a head at the end of last year could have sunk the school. But it didn’t. Now OTA needs to apply its hard-won lessons in order to keep its doors open for future years.

Mergers, Coups and Police

OTA’s near-undoing can be traced back to an attempt to solve the school’s central problem: how to relieve administrative pressure so school leaders have more time for academics.

Charter schools are like mini-school districts. They’re freed from many of the same rules that govern traditional schools, but are responsible for the administrative duties that traditional schools often pass to the district’s central office.

Just because principals understand what students need in the classroom doesn’t mean they understand what it takes to balance the books. Few charter school leaders handle both with equal grace, especially in a school’s early years, when budgets are thinnest.

Donahue sought relief from that pressure in Tri-Valley Learning Corporation, a charter management organization out of Alameda County.

In summer 2014, Donahue helped strike a deal: Tri-Valley would take on the school’s administrative duties. In exchange, Tri-Valley would effectively own OTA and gain a foothold in Southern California. Once the merger was finalized, Donahue would take a leadership position within Tri-Valley and help OTA search for a new principal.

As Donahue tells it, that decision would later cost him his job.

“I’m the idiot that brought in Tri-Valley,” he said.

For a while, both Celentino and Donahue said, the relationship seemed to work. OTA learned from Tri-Valley how to streamline some operational components, like payroll, and how to plan budgets much earlier, instead of doing it in hopes of meeting a last-minute deadline.

But then, in May 2015, everything unraveled.

Celentino and Donahue have very different versions of what went wrong.

As Donahue describes it, Celentino orchestrated his ouster because he wanted to run the school according to his own vision. Celentino changed the composition of the school’s governing board, adding members who would go along with the changes he wanted and force Donahue out of the school, Donahue said. And Tri-Valley was complicit in helping Celentino stage the coup.

Celentino said he’s confused by Donahue’s telling of events: Donahue was the one who sought out Tri-Valley in the first place.

“At the last minute – for some reason as yet unexplained – Tom decided he didn’t want to take the promotion, and did not go along with the plan,” Celentino said.

What is known is that the day Celentino expected Donahue to leave campus, Donahue did not want to leave campus. Police arrived to escort him off the premises. Donahue took a photo that shows policemen standing by their squad cars, policemen-like.

It got messier still. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported at the time:

“Opposing lawsuits have been filed over who controls the school. One waged by Donahue accuses the new charter board of making decisions privately in violation of open meeting laws, and sought a restraining order to prevent Tri-Valley from accessing the campus, its assets and records. A counter lawsuit filed by Tri-Valley sought a restraining order banning Donahue from the school.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer issued a temporary restraining order against Donahue, requiring him to cease involvement with the charter in any role other than as parent. He was ordered surrender (sic) all security pass-codes used by the school and his laptop computer.”

And there was another major problem: Nobody from OTA told San Diego Unified that it had entered into a contract with an out-of-town charter management operation. And when the district’s charter school office found out about the deal, it was not happy.

“There’s been some finger-pointing at the school about who told us what, but what it comes down to is that we were not informed,” said Susan Park, a program manager in the charter school office.

Park said concerns had less to do with Tri-Valley as an organization, and more to do with the fact that once the deal was finalized, a group based some 400 miles away would make decisions about a school in San Diego.

The confusion had a $23 million impact. Last year, OTA had become eligible to receive funding from Prop. Z, a construction bond that could help the school secure a permanent facility, instead of leasing the Old Town property on which it’s currently located. But that eligibility evaporated in the dustup.

Park said her office received communications from attorneys on each side of the dispute telling them not to talk to the other side. Opposing lawsuits were filed.

“Nobody felt comfortable issuing $23 million in bond funds while a school was suing itself,” said Park.

Donahue never did get that position with Tri-Valley. He was fired instead.

Necessity Breeds Innovation

Despite the drama, things turned out OK for OTA.

In December the school board reviewed its charter for another five years, board members attached conditions. Among them: Undo the merger with Tri-Valley, and strike no similar deals with an out-of-town charter management organization.

Tri-Valley will provide administrative services through the end of the school year, after which point, OTA will need to find a new provider.

Tri-Valley has made some controversial moves in an effort to expand. Earlier this month, the company made news amid allegations that it was illegally charging foreign students tuition to attend schools in California.

You could say OTA is back to square one. The school is currently at capacity – 270 students – with a long and growing waitlist. It’ll eventually need more space or a new facility. Celentino said he doesn’t know if OTA will again seek Prop. Z funding, but said the school’s board members will discuss the option in upcoming meetings.

But Celentino argues the school is in a better place today because of the things it learned from Tri-Valley – from streamlining administrative tasks to providing special education services – and those lessons will help them moving forward.

Meanwhile, the academic side of OTA has grown more robust in the past two years. Its curriculum has been updated to align more with Common Core standards. The science classroom, once filled with recycled soup cans and pizza boxes for students to use in experiments, is now brightly lit and stocked with new gadgets.

The robotics program has grown, too, thanks to parent fundraising efforts. Kindergarteners now use electronic bumble bees to learn robotic-basics (like typing short codes into a bee, then watching it scurry across the table). Lessons get more complex each year. Seventh-graders build houses with working lights and a moving garage door out of cardboard, a battery and a couple of wires.

In 2014, Donahue told me that not having money is great, in some ways, because it forces you to be innovative. Centofranchi, the current principal, said the same.

Mario Koran

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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