An Embattled Charter's Chance Could Disappear
San Diego Unified took the first steps toward shuttering a
Chollas View charter school, then offered it another chance. Now
that chance could be vanishing.
The embattled Promise charter school was offered another chance to stay open if it agreed to remake its board through democratic elections, undergo training on transparency and conflict-of-interest laws, and meet a slew of other conditions.
But that chance could be pulled away after the charter tried to tinker with it.
The San Diego Unified school board will weigh its fate tonight in a meeting that could go in two radically different directions: taking the next step toward closing the troubled school or halting the process and letting it survive.
Earlier this summer, San Diego Unified took the first steps toward shuttering Promise, a K-8 school in Chollas View, after its investigation found the school had violated state laws that require it to hold open meetings and had kept faulty financial statements, among a long list of other problems. It questioned whether Jose Orozco, who lacks an administrative credential, was equipped to be principal.
The school has been bitterly divided over Orozco and its board.
Some parents complained to San Diego Unified that they were intimidated if they disagreed with decisions on anything from scheduling to staffing. Upset teachers decided to unionize, bringing the San Diego teachers union into the fray. Their allegations and complaints led San Diego Unified to launch an investigation into Promise.
Orozco and parents who back him argue that complaints came from just a few disgruntled people after the principal made necessary changes, such as curbing inappropriate contact between teachers and students. They argue that its strong test scores are proof that Promise is working despite the discord.
Promise denied some of the findings and agreed to fix others. San Diego Unified argued it still had not done enough to resolve the problems, which would ordinarily trigger the next step towards shutting it down.
But even parents and teachers whose complaints helped spur the investigation seemed loath to shut down a school that has soared academically. The two sides agreed to sit down and mediate.
“I’m glad to see there’s been some communication and discussion,” said Lisa Berlanga, regional manager for the California Charter Schools Association. “Ideally it would have happened earlier in the process.”
They hammered out a draft agreement. San Diego Unified said if Promise signed the agreement, it would stop trying to shut it down.
The draft agreement would require Promise to:
• Remake the Promise board through democratic elections. Most current and former board members would not be allowed on the board. A dramatic change in the Promise board spurred many of the complaints; charter boards ordinarily appoint new members, not elect them.
• Get training on state laws on open meetings, conflicts-of-interest and employee rights. Teachers at the school have unionized but do not have a contract yet. Promise would have to strike an agreement with them by the end of the calendar year or show that it had made reasonable efforts to do so.
• Shunt its existing principal away from overseeing instruction and hire a separate director of instruction for those duties, restricting Orozco to handling operations and finances at the school.
Yesterday Promise countered with a slightly different agreement that would keep four parents who now serve as board members on the board, not just the two parents who had been recently elected.
San Diego Unified rejected the change, arguing that Promise didn’t really remake the board. Moises Aguirre, who oversees charter schools in San Diego Unified, called it “walking back” on the agreement they had came to in mediation. “We tried to exhaust all possible avenues and options,” Aguirre said.
Orozco said San Diego Unified officials also told them that the first agreement is no longer an option. “They said, ‘We’re done. We’re going to go forward with revocation,'” Orozco said.
The possible pact between Promise and San Diego Unified is still on the school board agenda for tonight, which means there is still a chance that the two sides could settle.
But if that doesn’t happen, there is also a public hearing scheduled tonight on the fate of Promise — the next step toward closing it down.
Charter schools are independently run but get public money and are usually overseen by school districts, which decide whether they can open their doors in the first place. They are free from many of the rules that gird school districts. But they are also supposed to be more accountable: If charter schools mismanage their money, violate their own rules or flounder academically, districts can shut them down.
Doing so is rare and deeply controversial: The last time that San Diego Unified actually revoked a charter school was five years ago, though other schools have closed on their own after problems were detected.