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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Valley Oak Charter Decision To Come on Thursday Night

Thursday evening in Davis figures to be one of the more important nights for two key issues. As we have been discussing, at 7 PM, the General Plan Housing Element Steering Committee will hold a workshop and take community input on the ranking of 37 identified potential sites for future development. At the same time, the school board will meet to likely decide whether or not to approve the Valley Oak Charter School.

The petitioners and the school district agreed last month by mutual consent to continue negotiations and talks aimed toward reconciling concerns that the district has with the drafted charter proposal. Both sides have worked hard and in good faith to move closer toward agreement. However, at this point there are a number of serious obstacles that have developed.

At last week's school board meeting, a presentation by Chief Business Officer, Bruce Colby, determined that the district is facing a $3.5 to $4.5 million shortfall in their budget for the upcoming year. The problem has to do with a statewide budget crisis and attempts by the governor to bring the budget closer to balance than he had previously. The result is that education which is one of the big line-items is facing a severe cutback in state funding.

The result of this budget crisis, coupled with the fact that the district has been deficit spending for the last three years or so, means that the Davis Joint Unified School District will face tough and painful decisions.

Let us be clear, the district's budget problems cannot be a reason to deny the charter. And in fact, the estimated cost of keeping Valley Oak open as a charter would only be $300,000 or so in a sea of $4.5 million. Nevertheless, you can be certain that this budget crunch will weigh heavily on the minds of the board members as they examine the viability of the charter overall.

The Education Code specifies five grounds to deny a charter:
(1) the charter school presents an unsound educational program for the students to be enrolled in the charter school; (2) the petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition; (3) the petition does not contain the number of signatures required; (4) the petition does not contain an affirmation of each of the conditions prescribed by law; and/or (5) the petition does not contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of the sixteen charter elements in prescribed by law.
While those are the formal reasons for denial, as we saw in December, those are subject to rather subjective interpretations particularly parts (1) and (2) can be rather broadly construed. As we saw with the resolution put forth by district staff, these can be nitpicked and interpreted rather broadly.

On the side of the petitioners has been the fact that the district has worked very closely with the petitioners to shore up some if not most of these concerns. At this point, the district has not released any support materials for this item. We will check for any updates through out the day.

In December, a strongly worded resolution was drafted against the charter petition. While the staff report gave the board the option of supporting the resolution, opposing the resolution, or taking no action, the implications for such as strongly worded resolution were clear.

The board apparently was uncomfortable with the strident language in the resolution and the newly hired Superintendent James Hammond emerged with a means to a good faith effort to reconcile the differences of the board with the language of the charter proposal.

As a result, a potential showdown was averted at this time and according to our sources there have been strong and good faith efforts to reconcile the concerns of the district.

Further complicating the process is the fact that there are now two new board members. Gone is board member Jim Provenza who was one of the strongest supporters of keeping Valley Oak open. Gone too is board member Keltie Jones, one of the strongest supporters of closing Valley Oak. In their place are new members Susan Lovenburg and Richard Harris. Mr. Harris was outspoken during his campaign in opposition to the charter itself. While Board Member Lovenberg strongly favored closing Valley Oak and following the recommendations of the Best Uses of Schools Task Force, it is less certain how she might view the charter proposal. The new board members do not necessarily doom the charter proposal, especially given the laws surrounding charter proposals, but they do add uncertainty.

If the board votes to reject this proposal, it would be appealed first to the County Board of Education and then the State. The feeling is that the county especially given the budget situation would probably uphold the rejection but the state has been known to overturn such rulings by local boards. Nevertheless, the rejection would drag this process out for a considerable amount of time and place the children who would attend Valley Oak into a quandary that would leave their lives and schooling at the very least disruptive.

At this point, I have serious concerns about whether this charter will get approved by the school district. Much will depend on the work that has occurred within the last month to shore up the proposal. A good deal of hard work, sweat, and anguish has gone into this charter proposal and it would be a shame to see it rejected at the last moment for reasons outside of the control of the petitioners.

The hearing is slated for 8:05 PM at the Community Chambers on Russell Blvd. It is unfortunate that we find ourselves in the position of having two key events occurring concurrently. For those involved the Valley Oak Charter is a hugely important decision that deserves the full attention and support from this community. I am hopeful that the district will be able to do the right thing for this community and the children of Valley Oak.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting