Charter schools’ $100,000 opposition helps sink district’s bond measure

The California Charter Schools Association Advocates paid for this anti-Measure H mailer, opposing West Contra Costa Unified’s school construction bond. “The School Board is wasting our money and hurting our children. It’s time to say ‘no more,’” it said.

Earlier this month, and for the first time, the political arm of the California Charter Schools Association campaigned heavily against a proposed school construction bond in a district that hadn’t agreed to share the proceeds with charter schools.

The $100,000 that it spent helped defeat the West Contra Costa Unified School District’s $270 million Measure H. It also sent a larger message to other districts with charter schools, said Jed Wallace, executive director of the California Charter Schools Association, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization representing most of the state’s 1,130 charter schools.

“If districts include us equitably, we will be partners with you,” he said. “You are on notice if you don’t. We will raise funds to defeat those measures that don’t treat charters fairly.”

Wallace also is a board member of the California Charter Schools Association Advocates Issues Committee, an affiliated nonprofit with some overlap in board members that funds candidates and campaigns. CCSA Advocates raised $1.7 million and spent about $1 million in the June primary, according to the Secretary of State’s Cal-Access website, leaving it plenty of money to back up its promise to watch other school districts putting bond measures on the November ballot.

The charter schools organization has thrown money behind bond measures and parcel taxes in the past decade: a facilities bond in Los Angeles Unified, a parcel tax in Oakland Unified and both a parcel tax and a construction bond in San Diego Unified, said Wallace. In the June primary, CCSA Advocates gave $5,000 in support of a construction bond measure for the Sequoia Union High School District in San Mateo County and $10,000 toward a parcel tax for the Livermore Unified School District. In both cases, the districts had promised to share proceeds proportionately with charter schools serving students from their districts, Wallace said. Both measures passed.

Under Proposition 39, which voters passed in 2000, school districts must provide charter schools with facilities comparable to those used by traditional public schools when the charter schools request it. However, they are not required to share parcel taxes or use construction bonds to renovate or build new facilities for charter schools.

There are seven charter schools either operating or about to open this fall in 30,000-student West Contra Costa Unified, and not all of them liked the idea of having the state organization fight the local bond measure. Two charters had benefited from previous district bond measures. The district had spent $2 million renovating a building for Richmond College Prep Schools, and more than $22 million for Leadership Public Schools-Richmond’s new high school, due to open in the fall.

Leadership will share a campus with Gompers Continuation High School, a district school, and share gym facilities and a health clinic. Leadership also benefited from millions of dollars more in soft costs, such as architect’s fees it didn’t need to pay. Leadership, which is used to modular construction for its new buildings, could not have afforded such a well-equipped, expansive facility on its own, said Louise Waters, Leadership’s CEO and superintendent.

Waters said she wasn’t aware of CCSA’s decision to fight the bond and wouldn’t have signed on. “Local charters usually work with districts to build relationships,” she said. “This puts us in a difficult position.”

Jorge Lopez, the CEO of Richmond Charter Academy, a middle school in West Contra Costa Unified, agreed with Waters. The CCSA Advocates’ campaign “was like throwing a nuclear bomb in an already hot area,” he said, and will complicate building new inroads with the district. He, too, said he was in the dark about the opposition campaign until it began.

But Wallace and Diane Tavenner, CEO of Summit Public Schools and chairwoman of CCSA Advocates’ board, said the campaign committee acted after reaching out to most charter schools in the district, though they wouldn’t name them. Some chose not to speak out because they are worried the district might hold it against them when they seek a charter renewal or a Prop. 39 building request, Wallace said. Summit operates a charter middle school in West Contra Costa Unified.

“The rationale is pretty straightforward,” said Tavenner. “When districts go out for bonds, part of their due diligence is to be thoughtful about their legal obligation to provide facilities for charters; they should be serving all public school kids. West Contra Costa failed to do this.”

The Sequoia Union High School District, by contrast, she said, was proactive. “I got a call from the superintendent and the board to meet with me before finalizing the bond measure language,” she said.

It’s not good enough, Tavenner said, for a district to give one charter a beautiful facility while other charter students are not served. “There needs to be consistency in meeting their responsibility,” she said.

Previous conflicts

The district and charter schools have tussled over the years. Summit and several other charters received approvals to operate from the Contra Costa County Board of Education after the district rejected their requests. The California Charter Schools Association is suing West Contra Costa after the district declined to share a portion of its parcel tax with charter schools.

Charles Ramsey, chairman of the West Contra Costa Unified school board, said no one from the charter schools organization contacted him to ask that the charters be included in the bonds. In an email, Superintendent Bruce Harter confirmed that as well. Wallace said the charter schools first heard about the bond proposal days before the board voted on it, and by then the language had been written.

CCSA Advocates donated through a nonprofit set up for the election, the Contra Costa Families for Better Schools. It wasn’t the only group opposing the bond measure, but it was the best funded. The campaign capitalized on voter worry about higher taxes and stories in the Contra Costa Times about the high cost to taxpayers of the previous six construction bond measures since 1998, which total $1.6 billion. Supporters of the bond, primarily construction companies and architects who benefited from past bonds, contributed more than $400,000, according to the Times.

CCSA Advocates spent most of the $100,000 on mailers. One quoted a Contra Costa Times analysis that the district’s building costs “appear to far exceed the norm in other districts” and added, “The School Board is wasting our money and hurting our children. It’s time to say ‘no more.'” The mailer said it was paid for by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates.

Ramsey said he was angry that CCSA Advocates attacked the district’s credibility in its campaign. “We felt blindsided that it would put that seed in the mind of voters,” he said. “It was odious and nefarious behavior.”

West Contra Costa’s Measure H was the largest by far of the nine school bond measures statewide that were defeated in the June 3 primary election. Only 45 percent of voters backed it, far shy of the 55 percent threshold for passing construction bonds. Thirty-five California districts – nearly 80 percent of the 44 districts with bonds on the ballot – passed them, according to the California Local Government Finance Almanac.

With a $691,000 donation last year from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and $550,000 from Doris Fisher, co-founder of the Gap clothing stores, the California Charter Schools Association Advocates is becoming a campaign force, backing pro-charter candidates in local school board, Senate and Assembly races. Other donors to the charter schools campaign committee include venture capitalist Arthur Rock ($350,000) and former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan ($50,000).

Gary Borden, executive director of CCSA Advocates, said the campaign committee hasn’t yet supported a candidate in the race for state superintendent of public instruction. He said the committee will decide this summer whether to back Marshall Tuck, the former charter schools executive who will face incumbent Superintendent Tom Torlakson in the November runoff.

John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.


Filed under: Charter Schools, Elections, School Finance



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15 Responses to “Charter schools’ $100,000 opposition helps sink district’s bond measure”

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  1. Gary Ravani on Jun 25, 2014 at 3:39 pm06/25/2014 3:39 pm

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    Al Shanker, the late AFT President, first brought the concept of charter schools to national prominence (at least as far as I am aware). In concept they were to be started by public school teachers who wanted to free themselves from the confines of local and state regulations to try innovations that might, if successful, be transferrable to other public schools.

    There are some worthy charter experiments going on. Some are Montessori type or other child-centered programs trying to dodge the test driven mandates of NCLB style “reforms” that have proven so dramatically unsuccessful.

    Unfortunately the always exploitive private sector, as well as the politically aggressive, have taken advantage of the opening provided by the well intentioned charter concept. A Hechinger Report article (1/23/14) sums this up in, “Some CA Charter Schools Are Opening for the Wrong Reasons.” (I consider “Some” an understatement.)

    A number of comments on this EdSource article seem to be dancing around this point.

    Interestingly, Margaret Raymond, Director of Hoover’s CREDO is quoted, “If a charter…is just a way of infusing a school or group of schools with additional resources, that’s just a money grab…” So what are the real motives of CCSA in shooting down a bond designed to help improve educational prospects in a district if they are not offered a finger into what they perceive as the financial “pie?”

    It is possible to look at the bigger picture. As noted in an LA Times article of 8/23/11, the Walton Family Foundation donated $15 million to the CA Charter Schools Assoc. Now, the philanthropic instincts of the Walton’s are well known. For example, they offered to manage a food donation program for their own employees to tide the hungry employees and their families over for the holidays a short time ago. They could have just offered their employees a living wage, but the Walton’s seem to prefer a more indirect kind of “largesse.” Not so with charter schools, or political candidates supported by the NRA though. For them, the money comes pretty much straight on.

    Various private sector charter management organizations, as well as the charter association people, seem to find the public schools, as well as the “philanthropy” of very conservative groups, pretty fertile ground.

    Unfortunately charters have not proven to be fertile experiments for educational reform, UCLA having found their curriculums to be more “regular,” in general, than regular public schools. Various studies have found charters do a poor job serving the needs of special education students and contribute to segregation. And CREDO found their achievement record to be spotty at best. The Deputy Superintendent of Schools in CA has stated that failed “start-up” charters have cost the state a great deal of money.

    Perhaps it’s time to “rethink” the value of many charters overall to the public good, as they are “public schools.”

  2. Debbie Lamb on Jun 20, 2014 at 4:17 pm06/20/2014 4:17 pm

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    Vallejo is going through a similar thing right now. MIT Academy has requested addition to the Fall bond measure by Vallejo City Unified School District and they’ve said no. Mare Island Technology Academy is the only independent charter school in Vallejo and it serves 800 6-12th grade students. It has the worst facilities of them all and VCUSD’s answer to Prop 39 requests has been offering to split the school onto two separate sites (because there are 2 charters) even though it operates as one school. Very slick on their part. Just this past Wednesday, they provided alternatives to our proposals at their Board meeting. It will be interesting to see what happens next.


    • navigio on Jun 23, 2014 at 8:09 pm06/23/2014 8:09 pm

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      I thought charter schools wanted out of the traditional district structures. Now they want back in when there’s money in it?

    • Livermorium on Jun 24, 2014 at 12:56 am06/24/2014 12:56 am

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      We just passed Measure G in Livermore, a parcel tax that included the charter schools. Charter school parent groups donated money and participated in phone banking. I didn’t hear any objections from any of the Livermore district unions, everybody was happy to work together. People who try to create distrust towards charter schools should be shunned and ignored. They have no place in today’s education system.

      • Manuel on Jun 24, 2014 at 10:32 pm06/24/2014 10:32 pm

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        What should we do with people who try to create distrust towards public schools? Should they be shunned and ignored? Should they be pilloried because they want to destroy something that belongs to all of us, you know, the public commons?

        I personally don’t believe that these people have a place in either yesterday’s, today’s, or tomorrow’s education system, but, hey, it’s a free country. Or at least that is what they keep telling me…

      • navigio on Jun 25, 2014 at 6:54 am06/25/2014 6:54 am

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        Whether parents contribute is not the point (though I wonder what they would have done had there not been something in it for them).
        I am curious why anything with a ‘charter’ label should get a pass.
        The charter movement (as a policy) has not only effectively given traditional public education the finger but could also care less what it’s impact is on the rest of the kids. I guess because someone gets to make money off of it we should just keep our mouths shut? That is the important thing after all, right?

  3. Jim Mordecai on Jun 20, 2014 at 3:50 pm06/20/2014 3:50 pm

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    California Charter School Association wants to use its money to send a message that charter schools are included in bond and parcel measures or else big money will sink any school board’s request.

    Ironic that the choice crowd doesn’t want to give school boards a choice of including or not including privately managed publicly financed charter schools receiving proceeds from passage of a bond or parcel tax measure.

    Overlooked in this situation is that charter schools are not stopped from requesting bond or parcel tax measures be put on a ballot for the public to decide if it wants to support charters with local funding.

    Also, overlooked is when a school board puts a bond or parcel tax measure on the ballot it has to front the money (taxpayers educational dollars) and try to raise volunteer money for campaigning. While charters and their association may or may not contribute to a campaign that is inclusive of charters, a school district gets the bill from the county for putting on the election thousands of education dollars. When Oakland School Board Measure N included charter schools on its last parcel tax request was defeated, not $1 dollar from a charter school or California Charter School Association PAC went to pay the bill from the county for putting on the election. What happen to the spirit of equitable public school charter school treatment.

    Finally, charter schools are able to use public education dollars to pay for dues for membership in the Charter School Association than transfers education dollars for lobbyists in Sacramento and Washington D.C. to advance charter schools agenda. This story is one example of the transferring of public education dollars to privately managed charter schools that advances charter schools’ privately managed interest paid by taxpayers’ dollars.

  4. Jack P on Jun 20, 2014 at 1:23 pm06/20/2014 1:23 pm

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    Interesting….so the charter grouped send out propaganda speaking to how bad the bonds were, but then in her comments, Tavennar said that district must include charters in every bond program?

    So if its indeed unethical as they put it, its OK only if they include charters? Sounds like union and mafia tactics.

    Also, they spoke to all charters? Why wont they say what charters schools supported it? Sounds like outside corporate charters on the hunt again while locals feel the brunt!


    • Don on Jun 20, 2014 at 1:47 pm06/20/2014 1:47 pm

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      I disagree with your take. I believe they are saying school bond measures should not exclude charters which are public schools. If bonds in West Contra Costa have historically been associated with higher than average costs, that is another and separate issue.

    • John Fensterwald on Jun 20, 2014 at 3:31 pm06/20/2014 3:31 pm

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      Jack: I did not expand on this point. The charter schools association’s perspective is its job is to represent the interest of charter schools (those in West Contra Costa now and those that will come in the future). Doing so takes the heat off individual charters that must deal with a district either with through charter renewals or Prop. 39 building requests. The law requires comparable facilities, but charter schools and districts fight all the time over what that means, and charters in many districts believe they are getting substandard facilities. So I understand why some charters don’t want to be out front and may be happy to have CCSA act on their behalf.

      • navigio on Jun 20, 2014 at 3:53 pm06/20/2014 3:53 pm

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        Seems kind of similar to the way unions operate on behalf of teachers. :-)

  5. Don on Jun 20, 2014 at 9:41 am06/20/2014 9:41 am

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    The campaign marketers for CCSA probably thought the waste, fraud and abuse issue would resonate more with the public than the charter school equity issue. But if charter school advocates want to draw a line in the sand over bond measure that don’t treat charters equitably, they missed the opportunity to make their case with that mailer.

  6. Don on Jun 20, 2014 at 9:26 am06/20/2014 9:26 am

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    I appreciate the idea that charter school students shouldn’t be treated as second class citizens by t school districts and that they should serve all students, as said Tavenner of CCSA Advocates. (Here on Ed Source so much effort is made to address that very equity issue.) So why doesn’t the mailer depicted in the article not even mention the charter school equity issue and only focus on the high cost of West Contra Costa bond measures?

  7. Manuel on Jun 20, 2014 at 8:56 am06/20/2014 8:56 am

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    While charter schools like to remind the public that they too are publicly funded, they are not truly accountable to the public since their Boards are, in fact, subject to different rules than your standard-issue Board of Education. (And, no, let’s not get into how unresponsive the school boards are, that’s for another day.)

    Given that, they are quasi-public (or is it semi-private?) corporations.

    Therefore, I see no reason whatsoever to vote for a bond, or any other measure for that matter, that funds charters until the playing field is even. What’s good for the goose and all that.

    Where are the so-called taxpayer organizations on this? Shouldn’t they be demanding equal accountability from the charters?

  8. navigio on Jun 20, 2014 at 5:57 am06/20/2014 5:57 am

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    wait, politics before kids?! for shame!

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