The headquarters of the San Diego County Office of Education. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

In recent years, state legislators passed a series of laws to give local school districts more power to regulate the charter schools they authorize. But recent confusion at the San Diego County Office of Education shows serious disagreement about how the laws can be used – sometimes within the same governmental body.

Board members for SDCOE voted to regulate the practices of a local charter school, but staff members never carried out their direction, because they came to believe board members had overstepped the law.

Back in February, the board was deciding whether to renew the petition of Classical Academy Vista, a charter school authorized by SDCOE. But they didn’t like the student demographics at the school.

Classical Academy Vista is a high-income school with just 15 percent Latino students. But it is located in Vista Unified, a much lower-income district with 65 percent Latino students. State law explicitly states charter schools should serve student bodies that are representative of the places they’re located.

“I know you’ve only been in existence a couple of years [on] this particular campus, but it shows no evidence of improving those demographics,” said board member Gregg Robinson at the meeting.

Robinson and his fellow board members honed in on what they saw as one of the major problems: the school’s enrollment preferences. Each charter school must accept students by lottery. But charters are allowed to give preference to some students. Vista gives preferences to siblings of existing students and children of staff members.

“Studies have shown that anytime you have legacy enrollments, that automatically becomes a systemic way to maintain the status quo,” said board president Guadalupe González.

The board decided to renew the school’s charter, but only if it would change its enrollment preferences to no longer favor children of employees or siblings of current students. This, they believed, might help the school balance out its demographics.

After board members unanimously approved this conditional renewal, it fell to staff members to write up a memorandum of understanding that made these new conditions official. But SDCOE staffers never wrote that MOU – or at least, not one that included the board members’ mandate that Vista Classical get rid of preferences for siblings and children of staff.

Government agencies are usually led by elected or appointed board members serving defined terms. But those same agencies are run, in practice, by staff members who might work their entire careers at the same agency – and have their own ideas about how the law works. SDCOE staffers ultimately decided to seek outside legal help to find out if board members had acted within the confines of the law.

The legal opinion they received: Board members, in this case, did not have the authority to strike enrollment preferences at Classical Academy Vista.

Legal experts are divided on this question of enrollment preferences – and whether authorizing districts can force charter schools to revise them – but many officials told Voice of San Diego that SDCOE board members should have been able to strike enrollment preferences if they wanted to.

Some believed, moreover, it was inappropriate for SDCOE staffers to revise the board members’ action, essentially, without a public vote. If board members now want to allow Classical Academy Vista to keep its enrollment preferences, they need to go back into an open, public meeting and vote again, one lawyer said.

Patrick O’Donnell, an assemblyman from Los Angeles County who authored many of the laws that regulate charters, said they were designed specifically to give authorizing districts the ability to approve or deny enrollment preferences.

“In the area of charter school admissions preferences proposed in a charter school petition, the law is explicit; charter authorizers are required to approve or deny all charter school admissions preferences, and must do so at a public hearing so there can be public accountability,” wrote O’Donnell in a statement.

Classical Academy Vista is part of a chain of charters called the Classical Academies.

It advertises itself as a “flexible, personalized educational environment that blends the best of independent study and the traditional classroom experience.” The program is mostly delivered online – and, in general, parents need to have time to help direct their children’s studies.

“We know that will exclude, by definition, parents who work full time, parents who do not have a college background, or educational background, people who may not be literate in English, and they’re trying to raise their kids,” said Robinson.

Leaders for other school districts have made it clear they believe it’s allowed to approve or deny enrollment preferences, especially in the service of ensuring a diverse student body.

During the renewal process, board members have “the authority to deny approval of any or all of the preferences for siblings [and] children of teachers… should it so choose,” wrote staffers for the Santa Clara County Office of Education in a report to board members.

Richard Barrera, board president of San Diego Unified School District, also agrees.

“Absolutely if an authorizing entity felt like the charter school was not meeting the diversity of the community, absolutely school districts can [approve or deny preferences] as a condition of renewal,” he said.

But Erin Hamor, an attorney for Lazano Smith, doesn’t interpret the law that way.

Hamor wrote the legal opinion for SDCOE staff members that justified their decision to not follow through on striking the enrollment preferences.

Hamor’s argument boils down to this: In order to renew Classical Academy Vista’s charter with conditions the board would have to have grounds to actually revoke the school’s charter.

“If we’re renewing it with conditions, another way to look at that is we won’t renew you… if you don’t agree to these conditions,” said Hamor.

She noted that for middle-performing charters, as Classical Academy Vista was categorized, non-renewal is “a high bar.” An authorizer must find school closure to be “in the best interest of the pupils,” she said. That would be a tough argument to make in this case, she said.

Another provision of law, also allows charters to be revoked in cases where charter schools are not serving certain student groups who want to attend the school, but can’t get in.

The student demographics at Classical Academy Vista clearly don’t meet the demographics of the surrounding community. But proving that certain student groups have tried and failed to get in isn’t exactly the same thing.

A staff attorney for the California Charter Schools Association agreed with Hamor that authorizers cannot strike enrollment preferences as part of a charter renewal.

Renewals with conditions have not been tested in California courts, which creates the legal gray area around the issue.

Still, other lawyers believe board members were well within their authority to strike Classical Academy Vista’s enrollment preferences.

The conditions stipulated by the board were “a legitimate exercise of the county’s authority in approving a charter,” said John Affeldt, a lawyer who specializes in education for a non-profit called Public Advocates. Removing the preferences “seems like a meaningful, significant condition that ought to be [included],” said Affeldt.

Victor Leung, who focuses on education law for the ACLU of Southern California, agreed the action was legitimate.

California law makes clear that the diversity of charter schools should reflect the diversity of the surrounding community and that authorizers must take this into consideration, as well.

Affeldt and Leung also said it’s problematic the board voted on a particular action in a public meeting – which should have meant it carried the weight of law – and then that action didn’t happen.

“If it’s going to be not followed and removed from the renewals that ought to happen in a public discussion, in front of the board, not a private staff watering down of the board action, actually, because the staff doesn’t have the authority to not include that condition in,” said Affeldt.

A charter school refusing to act on something an authorizer agreed to in a public meeting would actually be grounds for revocation, said Leung.

“Now, if the board has a change of heart or doesn’t hold the school accountable, potentially the CDE, the California Department of Education could get involved,” he said. “I would say it probably would be unlikely to get involved.”

When asked if staff members had the authority to water down an action voted on by board members, Hamor declined to comment.

Board members Robinson and González have not commented on the staff’s decision to remove their conditions from the MOU. I reached out to them for comment, but district spokeswoman Music Watson responded on their behalf.

“In February 2021, the Classical Academy Vista’s student diversity was raised as an issue when the San Diego County Board of Education considered the school’s charter renewal,” she said. “Ultimately, the board voted to renew the petition provided the school enter into a memorandum of understanding with SDCOE which addressed this issue in accordance with law.”

When asked if he planned to remove the admission preferences, Cameron Curry, chief executive officer of Classical Academies, replied “Classical Academy Vista is operating in accordance with state law, its charter petition, and its memorandum of understanding with the San Diego County Office of Education.”

Will Huntsberry contributed to this report.

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