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Friday, January 25, 2008

School Board Votes 4-1 To Rebuff Superintendent's Recommendation on Charter School

In yesterday's article, the Vanguard reported:
"Contrary to our bleak assessment yesterday on Valley Oak, it appears according to published reports that late discussions between Superintendent James Hammond and supports for the Valley Oak Charter have produced an agreement that have enabled the Superintendent to recommend approval of the plan."
As it turns out, the original bleak assessment turned out to be much more accurate. That would become clear one hour into new school board member Susan Lovenburg's lengthy question and answer session that seemed at times more like a filibuster or a cross-examination than an effort to absorb information.

Superintendent James Hammond repeatedly urged the school board to take a chance at doing the right thing by allowing the process to go forward.

However, the charter was likely doomed the moment Associate Superintendent Bruce Colby laid out the facts. With 167 students, the bare minimum, the school district would be projected to lose an additional $300,000 on this arrangement. Even with the projected 305 students, the district would lose $200,000.

All night the elephant in the room was the budget and "fiduciary" responsibility. Despite the fact that according to state law, the fiscal impact on the district cannot be criteria for denial of the charter. Board members ranging from Tim Taylor to Susan Lovenburg and Richard Harris said that unfortunately this could not be ignored.

Mr. Taylor somewhat diplomatically suggested that there was a conflict between the state law that governs charter schools and the laws that charge the school board with fiduciary responsibility.

Ms. Lovenburg much less diplomatically suggested that she would write her state legislator and try to get the law changed. However, the law is there for a key reason and that is to give charter schools a fighting chance to get passed. Without such laws, the school board could always have a ready reason to strike down approval.

Throughout the proceedings, the Vanguard and much of the audience was taken aback by the demeaner and approach of newly elected school board member Susan Lovenburg. She began with a long cross-examination of Charter Petition drafter Mike Egan and continued throughout the meeting with a lengthy series of questions. At one point, she asked six questions after she said she had one more question.

She increasingly became combative from the dais, clashing with DTA Representative Steve Kelleher at one point and then seemed to accuse the teachers and drafters of failing to be sufficiently rigorous in their work. This prompted Tim Paulson of the DTA to angrily rise and point out the huge amount of work that went into drafting the original document of the charter.

Ms. Lovenburg claimed to have come to the meeting undecided, but her line of questioning belied that claim. Moreover, her approach and demeaner were at times condescending and insulting to those who had poured sweat and toil into this process.

While one can disagree with Richard Harris in his choice, he was at least honest from the beginning, stating that this was not a close call for him and explaining why he would be voting against this resolution. At one point he took umbrage with a letter from parents presented at a previous meeting that accused the district of lack of sympathy and respect for EL Students. He rightly pointed out that while that may have been true in the past, and over the previous 5 to 10 years he had no doubt there was a lack of respect. However, Superintendent James Hammond had shown nothing but respect to the people of this district, going well above and beyond the call of duty.

Board member Gina Daleiden was genuinely torn on this issue between her responsibility to the students of Valley Oak and those of the rest of the district. As she did last year however, she voted in the end against the charter.

Board member Tim Taylor tried to find another way by suggesting that they wait another year to make sure the charter could succeed rather than rushing to implement it. However, it was clear that the petitioners were not in support of this approach. They feared closing down the school and trying to recreate what was there would prove impossible. Some suggested this was a ploy, but in my view, Taylor's approach was sincere.

The highlight of the evening was student representative Amanda Lopez-Lara's valient and eloquent advocacy for Valley Oak. Staying well into the night, she delivered a passionate statement talking about her family and what Valley Oak meant to them and then a plea for the school district to provide the means for Latinos and disadvantaged students with not only a place to learn but a place to call home. Her statement was clearly the highlight of the evening along with Sheila Allen's almost tearful support of the charter, the sole board member to support it.

In the end, the recommendation and work of James Hammond was valiant but futile. Factors that were not supposed to weigh on the minds of the board members weighed on their minds.

The process however will go forward. The petitioners plan to appeal the process to the county. If the county accepts the appeal, they become the authorizing body. Not mentioned at this meeting was the cost to the district should that occur which according to some estimates may run upwards of $1 million rather than $300,000 as current estimates suggest. If the county were to deny the charter, the state board could authorize it and then assign a body to govern it. This would also be potentially costly.

A further point that was raised is that the appeal would be the original charter that the board deemed to be inadequate rather than the newly negotiated charter, that was referred to as the Hammond Charter throughout the evening. The stakes here could be very high for the district and while it seems unlikely the county would reverse the decision, the state has a long history of doing exactly that.

After the meeting, the Vanguard caught up with Bill Storm, science teacher at Valley Oak:
"The elephant in the room might have been the $300,000 [a charter would cost the district], but the brontosaurus was race and class."
Mike Egan very graciously emailed the Vanguard a statement at 1:55 AM early this morning.
"The Founding Group of the Valley Oak Charter School is deeply disappointed at the DJUSD Board's action to reject a compromise charter petition. This compromise was the product of much good faith work between the Founding Group and the Superintendent and his staff. We believe the Board has missed an important opportunity to address the needs of an all too often neglected segment of the Davis community. We appreciate the support from members of the community who spoke in favor of the charter proposal. We particularly appreciate the insights offered by the student representative to the Board in speaking in favor of the charter. We will be meeting to consider our future course of action, including an appeal to the Yolo County Office of Education. "
As Steve Kelleher pointed out to a group outside following the verdict, this has been an uphill battle from the start but it is not over.

For my part, I did not expect to be writing this after the news came forth that the Superintendent was recommending passage. I am disappointed with the board for their decision and their lack of faith in the work of the Superintendent. I am disappointed that once again, the burden falls on those students who are most disadvantaged and least able. And finally I am disappointed that this fight that appeared over will have to continue for the parents, teachers, and students for a number of additional months.

The agreement that was reached was tough. It had concrete deadlines. These deadlines were built in to assure success. In some ways the school district ignored completely charter school law. The degree to which financial considerations weighed on the minds of school board members was discussed openly and will be admissible as a reason for appeal. This could actually put the school district at even greater risk. The degree to which the attendance issue weighed on the minds of the school board also has implications. The charter school law provides that they only need to get the signatures of half of the students. They actually got signatures for two-thirds of the students and yet that was never enough.

Yes the district is facing a severe budget crunch. Tim Taylor spoke of the need possibly to cut another school. However, the school district does not have the option to ignore state law on charter schools. By denying this charter there is the potential there that the district will face a loss of money three times what they currently project. If that occurs, how many programs are they going to have to cut?

This is a disappointing outcome for sure. But the fight is not over. Last night after the verdict there was no defeat, only resolve.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting