A Superior Court judge has given the parents in a Mojave Desert town who pulled the state’s second “parent trigger” a milestone victory.
San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steve Malone ruled that the Adelanto School District trustees illegally rejected the petition submitted by a majority of parents to turn Desert Trails Elementary into a charter school. Malone has given the school board a month to approve the petition, and the parents a green light to immediately begin the charter conversion.
The shakeup at the low-performing school won’t happen until the fall of 2013. And the president of the Adelanto school board, Carlos Mendoza, told the Los Angeles Times that he would recommend that the district appeal the decision.
But Malone’s 13-page ruling, made available on Monday, has revived the campaign of the Desert Trails Parents Union to transform their school. And it has come down squarely on the side of parent organizers in interpreting a key provision of regulations, involving signature withdrawals, that the State Board of Education adopted two years ago governing the Parent Trigger law.
The controversial law allows a majority of parents whose children attend one of the lowest-performing schools to sign a petition demanding a transformation of the school. Choosing a charter is one of four options under the law: closing the school, restarting it with a new principal, and having at least 50 percent new teachers are other choices.
Contentions from the start
The Legislature adopted the parent trigger in January 2010 to spice up an ill-fated state Race to the Top application, while limiting the imposition of parent petitions to a maximum of 75 schools. But there have been only two parent drives in 2½ years, and both have led to acrimonious petition fights, charges and counter-charges of lies and deception, and lawsuits. The first, at McKinley Elementary in Compton Unified, ended when a Superior Court judge sided with the district’s rejection of the petition on a technicality. About a third of parents at the school subsequently transferred their children to a new charter school that would have taken over McKinley, had the petition stood.
As at McKinley, the children at hardscrabble Desert Trails were mainly African Americans and Latinos who tested in the bottom 10 percent on state standardized tests; 28 percent of sixth graders tested proficient in reading and 30 percent proficient in math. Parents at both schools were organized by Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit supported by the Gates and Broad foundations.
Having learned lessons from the Compton experience, parent organizers at Desert Trails made clear who they were and what they were doing. “Great efforts were made to properly train signature gatherers and to attempt to avoid any accusation of misinformation, intimidation, or harassment,” Malone wrote in his ruling.
Charter petition as leverage
Organizers also chose a tactical approach that opponents eventually seized on. They had parents sign two petitions, one calling for parents to jointly run the school with the district and listing changes they wanted, and a backup petition demanding conversion to a charter school. The latter was to provide leverage in negotiations with the district. “It would be an independent charter school but in practice would be more like a district school, with unionized teachers with the possibility of modifying the contract in small but important ways,” said Gabe Rose, deputy director of Parent Revolution. But after talks fell apart in early 2011, parents submitted the charter petition with 466 signatures, representing 70 percent of parents and guardians with children at Desert Trails.
That’s when things got nasty. Organizers for opponents, allied with teachers and the district, charged the charter petition was a bait-and-switch tactic and started a campaign to get parents to rescind their signatures on the grounds that they were deceived. Parent Revolution, in turn, accused the anti-petitioners of forgery and deception, including flyers claiming that the school would close and all of the teachers would be fired under the charter school option.
“All of the parents knew why we had two petitions,” Rose said. “All were trained. They understood what was going on.”
Between the 97 rescinded signatures and other technical challenges to the petitions, the school board ruled that 218 signatures were invalid, bringing the petitioners to 37 percent of school enrollment, which was below the 50 percent required. The board rejected the petition.
Malone agreed that some of the signatures were not valid, but on the critical issues of recissions, the judge ruled that the school board had exceeded its authority. The parent trigger regulations strictly limited the school district’s role, once the petition was submitted, in verifying the accuracy of signatures. And it directed the district to deal directly with petition leaders, not parents who signed the petition. Anticipating underhanded tactics that both sides might use, the regulations ordered that signature gatherers, the district, and its staff should be neutral, so that parents would be “free from harassment, threats and intimidation related to circulation or signature of a petition or to the discouraging of signing a petition or to the revocation of signatures from the petition.”
The State Board briefly discussed the idea but chose not to include in the regulations a requirement for hearings on a parent trigger petition, so that the facts and promises set forth in a petition and anticipated charges of misrepresentation on both sides could be publicly aired. That dilemma remains unresolved.
Rose said that Desert Trails parents would decide what tack to take next later this week. Malone’s “unambiguous” ruling on recissions, he said, “has massive implications for future parent trigger petitions.”