Charter schools are negotiating with LAUSD on major revisions to school renewal petitions
Mike Szymanski | October 17, 2017
For the first time since LA Unified began authorizing independent charter schools, a charter school coalition is asking for major revisions in language and restrictions in their school petitions.
And the school district seems more open than ever to making those compromises.
Both sides say the changes are not aimed at increasing the number of charter schools in LA Unified, but creating a less burdensome process that allows them to get back to educating, rather than filling out forms.
“In the last week I have spent 40 to 50 hours getting our charter petition document in compliance,” said Emilio Pack, CEO of Stem Preparatory Schools and who has a new STEM Prep Elementary up before the school board next month. “Boy, would I rather have been in classrooms and working with teachers and mentoring principals during that time.”
Among the changes being sought:
- More transparency of the investigations by the district’s Office of Inspector General.
- A choice about whether offer transitional kindergarten. The district has required some charters to do so.
- A choice about how to offer special education services and the freedom from having to use the district’s plan.
- The freedom to use their own discipline policies on expulsions and suspensions.
- A five-year contract to operate, or co-locate, on a district school’s campus, rather than having to apply for the same space every year.
Those are some of the 11 major revisions requested by the charter groups. A separate 38-page document asks for minor language changes that would include making deadlines and response times more manageable for the charter groups.
Among other simple changes that were discussed, but are not a priority at this time for many of the charter schools is that some of them are asking for earlier notifications of whether they face a rejection and quicker response times from the district. Schools now learn of the district staff’s recommendation on their renewal at the same time the public does — when the school board agenda is posted the week before the hearing, which is sometimes a surprise for the schools.
Many of those changes can be made by district staff and do not require a vote by the school board. But anything involving policy changes — including how to handle co-location contracts or language required by lawsuits filed against the district such as for special education — will have to go to district attorneys, the superintendent, and the school board for approval.
The Los Angeles Advocacy Council, which represents 17 charter organizations, has been meeting with the district’s Charter School Division to figure out ways of creating less burdensome charter petitions. The discussions have become more frequent in the run-up to next month’s board meeting on charter renewals, when 34 schools will face a vote. Among those are are eight from the largest charter network in Los Angeles, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, seven from KIPP, and three from Aspire.
Although the discussions have been going on long before the recent school board elections, the drive for change has gained momentum now that pro-reform members make up a majority of the seven-member board. How long that majority holds out, however, has been questioned since revelations that former board President Ref Rodriquez has been charged with felony campaign violations. On Monday, the charter organization he co-founded revealed it has filed a complaint with state regulators alleging that Rodriguez had a conflict of interest when he authorized about $285,000 in payments drawn on its accounts, the Los Angeles Times reported. Rodriguez resigned the board presidency last month but remains on the board.
The four board members in the majority, who were elected with charter school support, have told LA School Report that it’s about time the second-largest school district in the country with the largest number of charter schools revamp its “District Required Language” (or DRL) that is necessary for a charter school to be authorized by LA Unified. Independent charters are funded by public money and authorized by the local district. They must be renewed every five years.
“It’s time for an update for sure,” said board president Mónica García in an interview. “We haven’t done any major changes since 2003 or 2004. It’s a long time since we’ve had an updated policy.”
One of the newest board members, Kelly Gonez, said, “There needs to be more bright lines to clear up what the district requirements are. I understand there needs to be some legal language and policy, but there also needs to be some flexibility and some discretion. That is the whole purpose of the charter system.”
García pointed out that district’s charter division shouldn’t become an investigatory agency. “We certainly need them to do the due diligence, and when our staff finds some malfeasance or other issues, that should be turned over to the district attorney’s office,” García said. “We have law enforcement offices to do that and we shouldn’t be involved with embezzlement and fraud. Our job is to create an environment for the best possible system to learn.”
The rate for a basic audit of a charter school was estimated in a past report as costing the district $69,811 for three months and$149,985 for a more complex six-month audit. The audits review the budgets, reporting compliance, test scores, and determinations whether proper procedures are followed.
“We have one of the most extensive review processes,” José Cole-Gutiérrez told the board. “We take a stewardship approach and work with the charter schools as a team.”
But Pack, who chairs the Los Angeles Advocacy Council, said that the charter division’s policies are “more burdensome than they need to be” and involve “more overreach than oversight.”
Cole-Gutiérrez has talked about the criticism from the charter schools and previously said, “One person’s overreach is another person’s due diligence. We must look into things, and especially if there are allegations. We are not going after inconsequential items.”
Two of the schools up for renewal in November are Magnolia Public Schools. Three of their schools were rejected last year, despite increasingly strong test scores, based on the charter division’s recommendations, which said Magnolia failed to provide auditors and financial overseers with necessary documents. The three schools then were authorized by the Los Angeles County Board of Education.
LA Unified’s inspector general’s office is also still conducting a three-year-old investigation of fiscal mismanagement, but Magnolia Chief Executive Caprice Young has yet to be informed about what is being investigated. Two years ago the district reported that it had so far spent $125,282 on investigating Magnolia, and that much of the investigation had to be outsourced. But it didn’t reveal what it was investigating. The district would not provide an update on what has been spent.
“This is still a shadow over our schools,” said Young, who has five schools remaining under LA Unified’s authorization. “We don’t know what is being investigated, or when it will end, and we keep asking but get no response. This affects our ability to get philanthropy and for us to be able to recruit kids to our schools. Parents want some certainty that the schools will be there.”
Young was on the school board when it gave the district more investigatory powers because the board members thought it would be helpful in getting bond measures passed to build schools. “It turned out to be a big waste of money,” she said.
“When I first was on the school board there were 17 charters, and when I left there were 50,” said Young, who served from 1999 to 2003. “The bureaucracy thought of charters as kind of a curiosity and not particularly threatening. It was a good place to stash your annoying educational innovators.”
Young doesn’t know yet whether the district staff will recommend against her two schools that are up for renewal in November.
“I’m not holding my breath, but I don’t know,” Young said. “I will find out when the agenda is published when everyone else finds out, and then there will be a mad scramble for 72 hours to see what they say about why we didn’t meet their criteria and find out what’s true and what isn’t true.”
This month one charter school asked for changes in its renewal language that would allow it to purchase special education services outside the district. School board members, following the district staff’s recommendation, voted against Lashon Academy, which is now appealing to the county.
“I was disappointed with the outcome, but I didn’t find out about the staff recommendation until Monday, and that’s a problem that the board has to deal with, too,” Gonez said at the hearing on Lashon. Gonez represents the district where the school is located. “This was a high-performing charter school, and we should support it.”
Cassy Horton, managing director for regional advocacy at the California Charter Schools Association, said LA Unified’s is the most complex charter application in the state, and perhaps the nation. “And the district doesn’t have a clear process on how we can negotiate things,” Horton said.
Although it’s unclear whether any district language changes will be made before the 34 schools come up for renewal on Nov. 7, those working on the changes said it will be an ongoing discussion.
“LAUSD is mandating language in the petition and that gives them a lot of negotiating power and power to enforce things well beyond charter law and takes away flexibility,” Horton said. “We are hoping to work it out so our operator schools can spend more time and energy serving students and focusing on the classroom. That’s what this is all about.”
* Corrects school up for renewal, and clarifications of the charter requests.