Credit: Letsdance Tonightaway / Flickr

Grappling with long-standing tensions related to charter school expansion, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Michelle King is implementing changes designed to help district-managed schools and charter schools share school buildings and best educational practices — measures designed to promote collaboration and reduce conflicts over access to classrooms.

The changes were recommended last spring by an advisory group that included school principals, parents and representatives from the school district, charter schools and United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents teachers in the district.

Charter schools and district-run schools currently share facilities at 106 Los Angeles Unified locations.  There are 224 independently managed charter schools in the district — more than any other district in the nation. Many of those charter operators have student waiting lists and are opening more schools to meet the demand. With the cost of new construction prohibitively expensive, many charter schools are looking to expand by using space in existing public schools. 

Disputes over access to public school facilities have been a major source of friction between charter schools and L.A. Unified since California voters in 2000 approved Proposition 39, which requires that “school facilities … be shared fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools.” The teachers union and some parents object to sharing space with charters, seeing it as an encroachment on district-managed schools. Many charter schools leaders believe they are being treated unfairly in back-and-forth space negotiations that sometimes leave them with no place to put students.

After adopting most of the advisory group’s proposals, King sent a memo June 30 to the district’s board of education establishing fall 2017 timelines for launching the initiatives. The main change is the emphasis on collaboration, a plan that will be implemented this fall for helping administrators at district-run schools and charters share “promising” educational practices. Those administrators are expected to relay those best practices to their teachers, who are to apply them in their classrooms.

“The ultimate goal is to learn from one another and we have not set up processes to make that happen,” said board President Ref Rodriguez, who is the co-founder of PUC Schools, a network of charter schools. “Charter practices can influence district schools and charters can learn from the district as well.”

By Oct. 1, the memo said, the district will begin hosting meetings and sending letters to parents, charters and district-managed schools to help them understand the application and implementation processes that enable charters to share space with district-managed schools. King’s memo said the district will encourage school principals to collaborate more on managing shared sites.

These initiatives come in the wake of elections earlier this year that gave charter-backed candidates a 4-3 majority on the district’s elected board of education and are part of an effort to reset district-charter school relations that have become increasingly contentious in recent years.

Prop. 39 didn’t spell out how to determine space needs for charters, and in some cases charters have turned to the courts or arbitrators for clarification and redress, including in L.A. Unified. For example, an arbitrator in 2016 ordered the district to pay $7.1 million for failing to provide the Ivy Academia Entrepreneurial Charter School with rent-free classroom space. The arbitrator said children attending the school were harmed because the school was forced to use some money intended for educational programs to lease a building for three years.

Also, the California Charter Schools Association has sued L.A. Unified, alleging it was not complying with Prop. 39: 

  • The association filed a lawsuit that was settled in 2008 when the district agreed to comply with Prop 39.
  • In 2010 the association sued L.A. Unified again, alleging the district was still not complying with the law. L.A. Unified won that case in state appeals court. That case eventually went to the California Supreme Court,  which ruled in the charter school association’s favor.
  • In 2016 the association amended its 2010 suit, alleging the district is still not complying with Prop. 39. The association is seeking a court date for the amended filing.

The conflicts over the implementation of Proposition 39 have coincided with a multi-billion-dollar construction program in L.A. Unified at the same time district enrollment has dropped and charter enrollment has increased. District enrollment has declined by about 100,000 students since 2000, which marked an early stage of a 20-year, $10 billion school construction build-up that ended this year. Much of the increase in the district’s charter school enrollment has been recent. From 2009 to last year, charter enrollment jumped from around 60,000 to 107,000.

Ricardo Soto, general counsel and senior vice president for legal advocacy at the California Charter Schools Association, criticized the district’s record in complying with Prop. 39 but praised its decision to create an advisory group.

“It’s good and positive that the district brought charter leaders and district leaders together,” he said. “Anything that can foster relationships is positive.”

The Center for Reinventing Public Education, a University of Washington research institute, studies collaboration between charter and district-managed schools nationwide. In a 2017 report, the center ranked L.A. Unified below districts in cities such as Boston, New York, Chicago and Denver on the degree of collaboration. But Robin Lake, director of the center, said the district’s changes may improve its relationship with charters.

“Potentially, it’s a signal from the superintendent that she is thinking about the needs of all students,” Lake said.

Credit: Ref Rodriguez campaign

L.A. Unified Board President Ref Rodriguez

L.A. Unified board members Rodriguez and Monica Garcia last year proposed the advisory group, looking to pave a path from conflict to collaboration between charter schools and district-run schools. The advisory group examined issues related to enrollment, transparency, parental and other community involvement, district-charter collaboration and Prop. 39-related school occupancy planning.

Charter schools can identify schools where they can share facilities by reviewing a Capacity Assessment Report that L.A. Unified posts online. The annual Prop. 39 process at L.A. Unified begins Nov. 1 — the deadline for space applications. The district must let charter schools know where they can locate by April 1 and charter schools must accept or reject that offer by May 1. If a charter school rejects that offer, district and charter officials begin discussions to try to reach an agreement. If those meetings do not resolve the dispute, the matter goes to arbitration.

Rodriguez said he proposed the creation of an advisory group because many charter school managers contacted him complaining there was a lack of information about Prop. 39 procedures. Also, in some cases, parents with children at district-run schools were told late in the process that their school would be sharing space with a charter, prompting speculation and fear about the district’s or the charter school’s intentions, Rodriguez said. In response, the advisory group recommended that the district adopt a “standardized” approach for informing parents, district managers and charter schools about developments related to Prop. 39 requests.

One member of the advisory group — Ebony Wheaton, director of facilities for the California Charter Schools Association — supports many of the proposals. However, in cases in which a charter school rejects a district’s offer, she wants the resolution process to start sooner. Wheaton would like King to include dispute resolution reforms in any future changes to Prop. 39 procedures. She cited a recent highly contentious space dispute — which has since been resolved — involving Pathways Community School, a charter in South Los Angeles, as an example of “flaws” in the process.

Pathways Community School Executive Director Erica Hamilton says she was unfairly denied classrooms.

Pathways, which currently has about 400 students, moved into one of four buildings on the campus of Dymally High School, a district-managed school, in 2014. Last year, it was allowed to use three floors in the four-story building, said Erica Hamilton, Pathways executive director.

Hamilton said she requested use of the fourth floor before the Nov. 1 Prop. 39 application deadline last year but the district denied that request and again offered Pathways three floors. Pathways rejected the offer, triggering a dispute resolution process that included talks in June and July.

Hamilton said she assumed she could operate on all four floors as they negotiated because that additional floor was vacant. However, she said the district informed her on Aug. 8 that Pathways would be restricted to three floors again.

Chris Downing, who serves as local superintendent for schools in the L.A. Unified’s southern district, said Dymally High School needed that fourth floor in the building used by Pathways because Dymally’s student population had increased by 120 students since last year. He also said that population was expected to expand further because of interest in a new dual enrollment program linking Dymally High and Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

Despite the denial, Hamilton told the 60 students assigned to that additional fourth floor to go to those classrooms Aug. 15, the first day of school at L.A. Unified. School district police officers arrived and asked the principal to tell the students on that floor to leave. Those students received class instruction on bleacher stands near a football field, Hamilton said. On subsequent school days some classes were combined, forcing the school to place 50 students per classroom in three of the rooms, Hamilton said. During another school period, she said, 75 students received instruction outside — some on a football field and some at an outdoor cafeteria.

George White

Pathways students meet for studies near football field after Los Angeles Unified police asked their principal to have them leave classrooms that the school was not authorized to use.

District and Pathways officials continued discussions, which concluded Aug. 24 when L.A. Unified agreed to designate the charter school as the sole occupant of the building, with access to the vacant fourth floor.

“I’m glad we’ve been able to work with the district to give our students the resources that they need,” Hamilton said. “We need dispute resolution reforms because this should have been resolved earlier … I’m hoping that we’ll see more co-location reforms because that will lead to more win-wins for charters and the district.”

Jose Cole-Guiterrez, head of the district’s charter school division, was a member of the advisory group that called for reforms. He was also involved in negotiations with Pathways. Cole-Guiterrez said the space-sharing process is complex at L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district.

“There are 100 [school-sharing] applications for 30,000 classroom seats annually,” he said.  “That gives you an idea of the complexity. We want to move forward with improvements.”

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