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SBE Appoints Trustees to Oversee Alisal, Greenfield Districts, Turns Down Piru Charter School

By Jeff Hudson - May 6, 2010

The State Board of Education – which has upheld several charter school appeals during the past year, over-ruling local school boards and county offices of education in the process – turned down a charter school appeal on Wednesday from the small Ventura County community of Piru, in the Fillmore Unified School District.

The petition for the Piru Charter School – which proposed to move into the buildings currently used by Fillmore Unified’s Piru Elementary – had been denied by the Fillmore Unified district’s school board in 2009, and the Ventura County Board of Education earlier this year.  Piru Elementary has around 300 students.

After studying the appeal, the state-level Advisory Commission on Charter Schools (ACCS) voted 5-2 to recommend the State Board of Education (SBE) approve the appeal.  And the California Department of Education’s Charter School Division reached the same recommendation, based on a conclusion that the charter petition included “all elements required” under state law.

But as the eight members of the SBE present for Wednesday’s meeting in Sacramento were swayed by nearly four hours of public comment from dozens of Piru residents – including two busloads of opponents who had come to Sacramento to tell the SBE that they didn’t want their only local school converted into a charter.

Kathy Long, chair of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, described the charter as “fatally flawed” because it lacked broad community support, and urged the SBE to “deny this petition.”

Ventura County Superintendent of Schools Stan Mantooth said “I have serious reservations about the viability of the charter.”  And Mary Louise Peterson, a trustee on the Ventura County Board of Education, noted that while that board has unanimously approved several other charter petitions, “we denied this one on a 5-0 vote . . . because the overwhelming evidence is that this charter would not succeed.”

Supporters of the Piru Charter School were present as well.  Evaristo Barajas, former mayor of Fillmore, insisted that “many people are confused about the charter school” and that “almost every parent I have spoken with stated they would send their child to the school no matter what happened” (with the charter appeal).

Richard Durborow, former principal at Piru Elementary and a backer of the charter petition, said charter school status would give the school “more flexibility and more on-site decision making” and lead to improvement in “neglected facilities,” as well as “give Piru a way out of Program Improvement status.”

Numerous Piru families and several teachers from the school spoke --on both sides of the issue – though there were more people speaking against the charter.  Many of the teachers (on both sides) emphasized how many years they’d taught at the school, almost all of the family members (on both sides) mentioned how many decades they’d lived in the community, or how many children (or grandchildren) they’d sent to the school.

The passionate (and at times deeply divisive) discussion from members of the small Piru community was an attention-grabber for the eight members of the SBE – almost all of whom come from urban/suburban communities, and most of whom come from the Los Angeles County/Orange County area.

Newly-appointed SBE member Ben Austin (who comes from Los Angeles) noted that “(Piru) is not like Los Angeles. This a rural community, there is not a lot of choice there. If this were an independent charter giving parents more choice and more power, this would be an easy decision, and I would vote yes. But this (school) is the only choice for this community, so I’m going to vote no.”

SBE member James Aschwanden, who lives in a rural area near Galt in southern Sacramento County, said that given the level of community opposition to the charter, “I began to wonder whether even under the best of circumstances this charter could succeed, given the amount of emotional baggage.” He added that “The best thing for this community is to deny” the appeal.

Yvonne Chan, a charter school principal in Los Angeles, on the other hand, said “I am for more (charter school) conversions . . . though I understand the fear about (the charter petition’s) finances, I have a hard time feeling that there (are grounds) for denying” the petition.

And Jonathan Williams, another SBE member from Los Angeles County, said he felt that the SBE was obligated to approve the appeal because the charter petition met legal requirements, in the view of CDE staff.

But SBE president Ted Mitchell (who lives in suburban Orange County) worried about the precedent that might be set if the SBE approved a charter that was clearly opposed by a broad segment of the local community.  “We have always wanted a our portfolio of charter schools to be exemplars of best practices, innovation, and ways that the public school community can learn from the charter school sector,” Mitchell said.  Looking at Piru, Mitchell continued, “It’s not Los Angeles; it’s a small, tightly knit rural community.  The obligation is to make sure that of this type (of charter), this is a model of what we want to encourage other communities to do.  So I’m going to vote no.”

The SBE then turned down the Piru Charter School’s appeal on a 6-2 vote, with Jim Aschwanden, Ted Mitchell, David Lopez, Gregory Jones, and new SBE members Ben Austin and Alan Arkatov voting aye, and SBE members Yvonne Chan and Jonathan Williams voting no.

In other action on Wednesday, the SBE:

--Appointed Dr. Carmel Franco as the SBE’s trustee for the Alisal Union School District, and Norma Martinez as SBE’s trustee for the Greenfield Union School District.  (Both districts are in Monterey County).

Franco served for 12 years as superintendent in Whittier (Los Angeles County), and recently served as interim superintendent in Woodland (Yolo County).

Martinez served as superintendent in the Alum Rock Union School District (in the San Jose area of Santa Clara County).

Martinez and Franco are bilingual (English/Spanish), and both Alisal and Greenfield have a high percentage of Spanish-speaking families and students who are English learners.

Both Franco and Martinez will serve for roughly three years – depending on how quickly the two struggling districts recover.  The SBA gave Franco broad administrative authority (“Option B”) in Alisal, a district that has seen rapid turnover of administrators and deeply divided factions in the local community during recent years.  Martinez will have slightly narrower “stay and rescind” authority in Greenfield.

--Noted that veteran administrator Fred Balcom is moving from his position as director of the CDE’s District and School Improvement Division to leadership of the CDE’s Special Education Division.  Balcom reminded the SBE that he worked in special education in another state during an earlier portion of his career, and said he is “very much looking forward to this opportunity.”

Editor's Note:  Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.