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School board’s high-drama discussion: Are we fair to charters?

Mike Szymanski | February 10, 2016



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George McKenna and Monica Garcia in school board debate.

If anything, it was good television.

LA Unified school board members confronted each other headlong in a dramatic discussion Tuesday night over whether charter schools were being treated fairly by the district.

The discussion opened calls for a deep dive into how district staff comes up with its recommendations for denials or approvals of charter schools.

The debate erupted during talks about the renewal and a new application for two charter schools run by Partnership to Uplift Communities (PUC). By state law, the school board oversees the creation of charter schools in the district and renews the contracts for up to five years. LA Unified is the second largest school district in the nation and has the largest number of charter schools.

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PUC students and teachers cheer after vote.

Because board member Ref Rodriguez co-founded PUC, he stepped out of the meeting and watched on closed-circuit live stream television, which is also available to the public.

The drama began when recent media reports, including those in LA School Report, were brought up that suggested charter schools were under more scrutiny.

Monica Garcia, whose district has the PUC schools, said flatly, “I think that the politics of the board has changed.” When asked to clarify the statement by board President Steve Zimmer, she repeated the statement.

Monica Ratliff responded, “I think something has changed. I’m not necessarily opposed to it, but let’s be transparent about it.”

  • VIDEO: To watch the board members’ debate, start at 5 hours 51 minutes into the meeting in this video

Ratliff asked the chief of the Charter Schools Division, Jose Cole-Gutierrez, why the staff suggested denying the PUC petitions. “It seems like you are saying we are always consistent in our denials,” she asked.

Cole-Gutierrez said, “We strive to be consistent, period.”

George McKenna, the senior statesman of the board and vice president, called out some of the statements by his fellow board members. Sitting next to Garcia, he said he didn’t like the idea that she suggested that charter school decisions are based on politics.

“I’m concerned with the conversation of my colleagues. I’m not making my decision based on politics,” said McKenna, then he pointed across the dais to Ratliff and said, “Also, I have a problem with [saying] we have public allegations, therefore we have to do an investigation.”

McKenna said, “Charter renewal is based on intensive data analysis.”

Nevertheless, before the night was over, the board would ignore the data collected by the staff and approve the two petitions recommended for denial, and deny one petition for a charter school that the staff suggested for approval.

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Attorney David Holmquist consults with Superintendent Michelle King.

McKenna also called out Zimmer for asking Cole-Gutierrez if he believed that PUC could change in the future. McKenna said they should stick to the data.

“I love these kids, love them,” he said, looking down at two 10-year-old fifth-graders who waited eight hours to testify to the board.

McKenna suggested that Ratliff didn’t trust the staff recommendations. “I don’t think we are in a position of analyzing him because we don’t like his outcome. Why don’t you just make your decision instead of finding his data is flawed.”

Ratliff retorted, “I’m offended actually with what you are saying.” She said she wasn’t questioning the data from staff, but simply the history and procedures based on allegations by the charter school petitioners.

“I’m not saying that the data he’s providing is inaccurate data,” Ratliff said. “What I’m asking for is a five-year analysis of our denials and approvals.”

During the entire debate, in an audience filled with about 75 people, Zimmer allowed the discussion to continue. He even allowed for a straw vote, which he called “unorthodox.” He turned to new Superintendent Michelle King sitting next to him and asked if she had an opinion, and she reminded him that the staff decision had to be signed off by her.

For the denial of the PUC Excel Charter Academy renewal, a tie vote meant there would be no action and the school could remain. McKenna, Scott Schmerelson and Richard Vladovic voted to deny the school, while Ratliff, Garcia and Zimmer voted to approve, with Zimmer saying, “I do trust the staff.”

For the petition to open the PUC International Preparatory Academy, the board worked out approving the school for only three years, negotiating up from McKenna’s suggested two years so the school can have data showing improvement rates. That vote ended with all voting for the school except Zimmer.

When Rodriguez returned to the room after the votes, he gave a wave to his former PUC colleagues.

‘Healthy’ debate

In an interview with LA School Report on Wednesday afternoon, Rodriguez said he has yet to speak to his fellow board members about the debate the night before, but he found it all fascinating.

“I’m OK with the discourse I saw last night, that’s an important component of the work,” Rodriguez said. “It was healthy to put things out into the public, but I also thought that some of it was not well thought out.”

He said he was surprised by some of the votes after the heated debate, but said, “As an observer and colleague it tells me a lot in the sense that it’s an issue by issue thing, that gives me some hope. It isn’t that ‘I’m in this camp always voting no’ and ‘I’m in this camp always voting yes.’ There are individuals being thoughtful about it.”

Ultimately, Rodriguez said, “We have the same regulations, the same policies, the same standards for charters, but I do believe something has changed around holding them accountable. I’m not against that, but it needs to be consistent. I’m not sure that’s where we are at this point.”

Rodriguez blamed the dire financial crisis facing the district. “The board is strained and stressed around the financial cliff coming our way, and so I think that is playing out in decisions, and particularly in charters. Because it is a general public belief that charters siphon kids from the district and that’s the reason we’re in the situation, until we have a coherent comprehensive plan for how we will address the financial situation there will be this forced decision making. Some will feel forced against the wall with no other relief valve in sight, and this is the only way we know.”

As a former charter operator, Rodriguez said he agreed with Ratliff’s idea to look back at five years of data. “We should see how many renewals the board overturned and how many got renewed that were in a similar situation as PUC Excel with the same data. This is holding a mirror up to say are we being consistent.”

Rodriguez said he is not questioning staff data, nor did he believe Ratliff was, but said, “If there’s a pattern, we could course correct. I want to have quality oversight and be analytical about it. I have no interest in the department being a puppet of the board. That unit needs to be rigorous in its approach to its work, so that it helps me make the best decisions.”

At the meeting, Zimmer said he had a high bar to approve charters. “We are looking at one school, and the data presented has some hard truths.”

Schmerelson suggested that principals write letters to the editor asking for “an investigation and find out maybe the charter is not being fair to the neighborhood schools in the area.”

Vladovic said, “I don’t think the inconsistency is with the staff, it’s with our votes. We allow some to go through. If there’s a problem, it’s us.”

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