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Monday, February 11, 2008

Confusion and Misunderstanding at Root of Thursday's School Board Meeting Complaints

Many proponents of the Valley Oak Charter school were stunned last Thursday, when a group of Spanish-speaking families spoke before public comment at the Davis school board meeting and leveled criticism at the proponents of the proposed charter school perceiving that they had misrepresented and twisted their intentions.

Maria Cabrera, who works at Valley Oak, spoke on behalf of many of the Spanish-speaking families and accused charter proponents of twisting their words for political reasons.

The Vanguard has looked into the allegations by Maria Cabrera and now has an understanding where these complaints come from. However, there is little evidence that the Valley Oak charter proponents made any attempt whatsoever to intentionally deceive Spanish-speaking families. It is our belief that there was miscommunication along the way that fed into this problem, but also at the core an overreaction.

At the core of the complaint was a letter that was sent to the district a few weeks ago. It was a letter that complained that they felt left out of the Valley Oak closure process from the beginning starting with the "Best Use of Schools Task Force." This letter was picked up by newly elected school board member Richard Harris, who criticized it, suggesting at the time that no one had respected the community more than new Superintendent James Hammond. But Harris missed the point of the letter.

However, so did apparently Charter Proponents, who it seems felt that the letter was a pro-charter letter. However, it seems it was more basic than that. Asking for the chance to speak directly for themselves, they want choice of placement for their families and they want to be respected.

They became angry when the letter was tied to the charter issue since it was not. Maria Cabrera suggested that they were being used as political pawns by the Charter Proponents and that just because they spoke Spanish, did not mean they were stupid.

To me, I can understand some frustration here on the part of the families, but the level of response seems more than a bit disproportionate to the offense.

Adding to this incident was the leaflet sent out by the charter proponents to invite members of the community to a meeting a week ago Saturday in support of the charter but also to give out information in English and Spanish about the Charter.

Apparently Maria Cabrera and some of the families felt the leaflet was misleading. The translation from English to Spanish was admittedly not perfect. There is no perfect translation of "Charter" that conveys the actual meaning in English into "Spanish." So if the English version said "support the charter" and the Spanish translation said "Support the community school" there might have been some confusion.

However, reading the full leaflet in Spanish, it mentions "Charter" repeatedly even if it does not in the "headline." From our perspective anyone who read the Spanish version would see the word "charter" in italics used over and over again. If there was confusion it would seem reasonable to approach the proponents and explain the problem instead of criticizing and blasting them in front of the school board. It is clear from reading the two versions, which readers can see by clicking the link below that there is no clear intent to deceive.

To see the leaflet, click here (my apologies I was only given a blue version)

In my conversations with both charter proponents and district staff alike including board member Sheila Allen and Pam Mari, that is really at the core of my concern--why simple misunderstandings were blown into some sort of large and angry conflict such as the one that arose on Thursday. This remains a point of concern for me.

The suggestion was that there was some kind of history here between the two sides, I do not know what that is exactly.

Finally I am concerned by reports from some of the organizers for the charter school that families were under the impression that a charter school was not a public school and would require tuition. And this was not an isolated belief. Someone had to be spreading that rumor around, I do not know who did though.

The bottom line here is that emotions and tensions were very high on Thursday and I'm not exactly sure even now why that was the case. I see no evidence that the charter proponents were intentionally attempting to mislead Spanish-speaking families, in fact all I have seen is evidence of respect for these families with Spanish-translations and a bilingual presentation on Saturday night. All of this appears to be a misunderstanding blown out of proportions.

In speaking with several of the families on Thursday in Spanish, my wife Cecilia and I, were told that they want to send their children to Valley Oak and to the Charter School. In fact, many of the families who spoke out on Thursday were actually wearing Valley Oak Charter buttons. For their perspective they want to be heard, they want to be respected, and they want to choose where they send their children to school. Who can argue with that.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting