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Proposition 39 requires districts to share their campuses “fairly” with charter schools, alternative public schools that are self-governed. The question of fairness usually results in legal battles. In one case, the District will be forced to make space at one site, while in other districts an active charter movement leads to litigation. LAUSD also begins the feel the pain on 40 campuses.

Charter schools get boost in ruling

Sierra Sands district must work to make room for kids at one site, court rules

By Amy Hilvers, Bakersfield Californian, June 29, 2005

School districts across the state will have a much higher standard when deciding how to make room at their schools for charter school students, an appellate court ruled Wednesday.

The 5th District Court of Appeal ruled that Sierra Sands Unified School District must justify why it can't give up a single school site to house Ridgecrest Charter School's students. The ruling, if not appealed, sets a statewide precedent.

The legal battle centers around the charter school's contention that it was entitled to one district school site to house its 223 kindergarten through eighth-grade students. The district, arguing it did not having enough room at a single site, offered classrooms at five different sites separated by 65 miles.

The charter school went to court and Kern County Superior Court Judge James Stuart ruled in December 2003 that the district did not abuse its discretion by offering several sites.

The appellate court rejected the charter's school contention, but ruled the district abused its discretion when it failed to justify why it couldn't accommodate the charter school at one site.

The case was sent back to let the district change its offer.

The court stressed that districts must give charter school students the same consideration that they give their own students and must make every effort to provide charter schools with facilities that they want.

But balancing all factors creates tension, the decision said.

"That is, at the risk of seeming to oversimplify a difficult and complex process, we think it must at least begin with the assumption that all charter school students will be assigned to a single site, and attempt from there to adjust to the other factors to accommodate this goal. What all those other factors are, how much weight ought to be given ... are all decisions that can only be made in light of the circumstance in each particular case," the court ruled.

Both the appellate court and Stuart expressed frustration that the district offered little information to justify its position. That left little for the courts to base their opinions on.

Sue Ann Salmon Evans, attorney for Sierra Sands Unified School District, said the ruling clarifies a decision-making process for the district, which was not spelled out in the current law. She said she would discuss the ruling with the school board and decide where to go next.

Bill Hornback, an attorney at Schools Legal Service in Bakersfield, said the ruling didn't necessarily mean that the district would have to shuffle students out of a site to make room for charter students.

The court pointed to other factors to consider, like student safety. Hornback said the court didn't lay down concrete rules that would apply statewide.

"Are you supposed to redistrict your district to accommodate a charter school? I'm not sure that question has been answered by this decision," he said.

Charter schools, districts in battle over campuses

Sharing fairly under Prop. 39 center of dispute

By Helen Gao, San Diego Tribune, July 28, 2006

When California voters approved Proposition 39 six years ago, it was mainly known for lowering the threshold for passing school bond measures.

These days, though, the law is in the legal spotlight for pitting two camps of public education against each other in a high-stakes fight over school buildings.

Proposition 39 also requires districts to share their campuses “fairly” with charter schools, alternative public schools that are self-governed.

How to share fairly is at the center of the dispute.

The rationale behind the law is that charters serve students who otherwise would attend district-run schools. Therefore, they should be entitled to use district facilities.

Since Proposition 39 took effect, districts statewide have faced mounting requests from the growing number of charters seeking to use their campuses.

“Some of the districts are working relatively hard and diligently to try to provide facilities,” said Eric Premack, co-director of the Charter Schools Development Center, a Sacramento-based nonprofit that provides technical assistance to charters. “However, many seem to be still in a state of denial about Proposition 39 and will simply flat out refuse to provide any facilities or drag their feet.”

Roughly 3 percent of the state's public school students – about 200,000 children – attend charter schools, which have their own boards of directors and control of their budget, staff and curriculum. In San Diego, about 10 percent of the district's 133,000 students attend charter schools. Many charters are housed in churches and office buildings because they lack the money and facilities that traditional public schools receive.

But as they have grown in number and political clout, charter schools have become more aggressive and savvy in their fight for space.

Charters up and down the state have filed lawsuits against their districts contending they haven't complied with Proposition 39. The San Diego Unified School District was sued last year.

Some charter school advocates interpret the law to mean that school districts have an “unconditional legal duty” to provide facilities, even if it means relocating district programs or redrawing attendance boundaries.

Districts say charter schools want more than what is fair and legally required. They also say they are doing their best to comply with a law that could have serious financial and logistical impacts on their operations.

“They have to balance the needs of both sets of kids,” said Stephanie Farland, a senior policy consultant for the California School Boards Association.

“They don't want to penalize the kids they directly serve by giving space over to charter schools.”

A 2005 survey by EdSource, a nonprofit independent research organization, showed that of 131 California charter schools that applied for facilities from districts, 60 percent received offers that fully or partially met their needs.

Almost all charter schools that applied with the San Diego district were offered facilities for the upcoming academic year, but only after intense behind-the-scene negotiations. Some rejected the offers, and many complained about the application process.

Charter schools are especially vocal in San Diego.

There are 37 of them fighting for limited space in the city. They have successfully lured away 13,000 students from district-run schools. For the past academic year, they received an estimated $56 million in per-pupil funding from the state – money that in the past went to the district's coffers.

Although charter schools pay fees to their respective districts for various services, the fees don't make up for the loss in per-pupil funding. This loss erodes school districts' budgets at a time when many are grappling with an enrollment decline caused by demographic shifts and high housing prices, which is the case in San Diego.

“We are seen as the competition and the enemy in most cases,” said Luci Fowers, who runs Albert Einstein Academy Charter School, which has clashed many times with the district over access to facilities.

The competition between charter schools and their districts over enrollment has created tension ever since charters were created by law in California in 1992. Proposition 39 has only intensified the conflict.

“Where you see the biggest rub is where you have a district with declining enrollment and students siphoned off, and the district is barely hanging on. It adds that additional fuel to the fire,” said Laura Walker Jeffries, a legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, which represents both charter school and traditional public school managers.

The fight comes down to control of taxpayer-funded facilities.

Before Proposition 39, districts had full control of their properties. They could sell properties to generate cash or lease them to private entities at market rate to fill funding shortfalls.

Not anymore.

Charters now demand the right of first refusal when district facilities become available. Lawyers representing San Diego charter schools say it is illegal for the district to lease surplus properties for extra income instead of offering them to charter schools.

Unlike private entities, charter schools by law don't have to pay market rate. Districts can only charge fees to recover the costs of providing facilities. That means they lose out on lease revenues when their buildings go to charter schools.

For example in San Diego, the former Cleveland Elementary campus is being leased to a charter school for $70,000 a year. Previously, a private school was charged $250,000 a year to use the same site.

Bob Kiesling, San Diego Unified's facilities chief, said the district will generate $4.7 million next year from leases of closed schools and undeveloped land to private organizations. Part of the money is used for maintenance. The rest helps cover operational expenses, such as bus transportation.

Kiesling said it would be detrimental to the district if it could not continue to lease surplus buildings to generate revenue.

However, charter school lawyers suing the district argued in court papers that financial considerations are not a legitimate reason for denying charter schools' equal access to facilities. Two charter schools suing the district asked for a share of the district's lease revenues to defray their cost of renting buildings.

The district “must be ordered to treat the charter school students as if they were the District's 'own,' rather than as unwanted stepchildren or second class citizens,” the lawsuit read.

San Diego Unified has tried to appease charter schools by offering some facilities.

Last year, it allowed Albert Einstein Academy to move into the former Brooklyn Elementary School in Golden Hill. The district is also preparing to let two charter schools move into the old Mead Elementary School in Chollas View, vacated after a new campus opened this year.

The district has tried to protect its income-generating properties by steering charters to less valuable vacant buildings.

To charter schools, it's a no-brainer that the district should accommodate them.

“Aren't we both in education? Aren't we both striving toward the same goal of excellence for students everywhere? But it doesn't feel like that oftentimes,” Fowers said.

In December, Fanno Academy and KIPP Adelante Preparatory Academy, with the backing of the California Charter Schools Association, sued San Diego Unified over its refusal to grant their requests to use district property.

The lawsuit is working its way through Superior Court, but the district is in settlement talks with Fanno to possibly let it move into the old Mead campus. Elsewhere in the state, two notable appellate decisions have come down in favor of charters. At least one ruled for a school district.

Hoping to reduce litigation, the California Department of Education is working on revising Proposition 39 regulations. Revisions are expected to go before the state Board of Education in November.

In the meantime, the California Charter Schools Association has created a legal defense fund to support its members. Districts, including San Diego Unified, have turned to outside law firms to scrutinize charter schools' facilities requests and defend them against lawsuits.

Turf face-off may be in store for L.A. schools

Ballot provision forces public campuses to share space with charters, and neither side is looking forward to it

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2008

The faculty at tradition-proud but low-performing Fairfax High School has worked for two years on a plan to improve the school while also attracting long-absent middle-class families. Scheduled to start next fall, the new setup includes dividing the sprawling campus into small academies -- each with a different theme, each designed to devote attention to every student.

But there's something Fairfax wasn't planning on.

The school suddenly is expected to share space with one of the district's privately run charter schools.

A vocal group of teachers, students, parents and community organizations say the charter school will impede Fairfax's rise by taking up needed classrooms and creating logistical headaches.

"I don't think I've ever seen an issue that has brought together teachers in essentially unanimous agreement that this is hurtful to everything we're trying to do at Fairfax," said social studies teacher Mike Stryer.

Variations of this scenario are occurring throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District: at Crenshaw High to the south, at Taft High and Reseda High in the San Fernando Valley, at Selma Avenue Elementary in Hollywood and Miles Avenue Elementary in Huntington Park.

Some 40 Los Angeles schools learned last week that classrooms on their campuses have been offered to charter schools. And a little-noticed provision in a state ballot measure eight years ago requires district facilities to be shared.

Charter operators insist the law is clear but say that, until this year, the district has never tried to meet its obligation.

Only about half a dozen charters currently occupy district buildings, a fraction of the ever-growing population of 129 charters operating within district boundaries. Charter advocates sued and reached a settlement in February.

Even without the agreement, traditional schools have extra room because enrollment is dropping even as new campuses open. All 40 targeted traditional schools have classrooms that are underused.

Both sides look askance at how the other half lives. Charter operators are tired of putting up with substandard conditions in clammy rented church basements. And they worry about being stuck with the dregs on district campuses as well. More than a dozen charter schools that applied still don't have campus offers.

The host schools worry about the arrival of charters, which can offer smaller classes and competitive programs.

New West Charter Middle School, the proposed roommate for Fairfax, operates out of a former Westside furniture store at a cost of $20,000 a month. The school's test scores far surpass those of typical district middle schools, and 300 applicants were wait-listed after coming up short in an admission lottery. The school draws students from 52 ZIP Codes, despite lacking funds to provide transportation.

New West has a contentious history with the district, which refused to approve or renew the charter, partly because of allegations that the school's application process discourages lower-achieving students. The state Board of Education authorized the school.

The school's leaders now must decide if Fairfax is worth the move; it's miles from their Pico Boulevard campus, and the offer is only for one year.

"They make these offers so you can't accept them," said New West co-founder and governing board member Judith Bronowski. "Why would you turn your whole world upside down for one year?"

Not to mention the issue of not being wanted.

"We will fight this," said Erik Travis, lead teacher for the nascent Academy of Media and Performing Arts at Fairfax.

Travis had planned to house his program in the bungalows apparently slated for the charter. The Fairfax academies are supposed to be self-contained, with their own offices. The bungalows offer such a setting, but that also makes them well suited for a charter.

"It would be a shame to derail our plans, of which hundreds of students and families are very excited and supportive," said Travis, who also challenges the district's estimate of available space.

In the Valley, charter school operator Norman Isaacs hopes his struggle to find classrooms is over. Isaacs, a longtime district principal, opened a charter after the district resisted his idea for an arts high school. Now in its third year, his CHAMPS charter started off at Valley College, then moved to Sherman Oaks midyear before setting up in a Lutheran church in Van Nuys.

Last year, he thought he would get space at Woodland Hills Academy.

"The school district offered 15 rooms," Isaacs said. "Then it went down to 13, to seven, to five. And we ended up with two non-air-conditioned rooms."

This year, he's been promised 15 rooms at Taft High for his popular, high-performing charter.

"I'm probably the most optimistic person in the world," Isaacs said. "It just seems, sometimes, when you get to the school, things change."

In fact, Taft Principal Sharon Thomas said she has nothing close to 15 available rooms. And the school has its own performing-arts academy, so she doesn't appreciate the possible arrival of a competitor. Adding to her problems is a freeze on new enrollment permits -- even though more than one-third of her students live outside the school's official attendance boundaries. The district has halted new applications until it's clear how many seats the charter would occupy.

Crenshaw High parents and teachers aren't any happier.

"This is a slap in Crenshaw's face," said Rhonda Adway, whose granddaughter is a senior there. "We worked so hard. Why would we want to have a charter school on our campus when we're doing reform?"

The charter slated for Crenshaw is Frederick Douglass Academy Middle School, which is linked to a high-performing charter high school that has attracted public and private school students.

"Here, on our campus, is an opportunity for students in our area to be pulled away from our school," Adway said.

Crowding is the concern at several year-round schools. Though enrollment is declining -- which opens up some classrooms -- the student count is still close to 1,800 at Miles Avenue Elementary, for example.

Wadsworth Elementary teacher Robin Potash was dismayed when she heard about plans to provide a set of bathrooms for the exclusive use of three classes of charter students at her South Los Angeles campus. More than 1,000 students in the regular school must get by with only one set of bathrooms, she said.

There is another set of bathrooms, she added, but they're usually kept locked until the regular bathrooms flood, which happens periodically.

"It will set up a situation of haves and have-nots," Potash said. "They will probably look like they have new things and more things and more money. . . . There are many times when we don't have enough chairs and desks."


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Last modified: April, 2008

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