by Margaret Liles
Pat Maio’s article about Thurday’s Escondido Union School District (EUSD) Board meeting would have met Sgt. Friday’s preference for “just the facts”, but he did not cover some of the more salient points.
The representative of Dennis Snyder’s Heritage Charter Schools, Shawn Roner, avowed that the change in admission priorities “was not an issue at all,” because only four out of the 800 K-8 Heritage school applications were applications from the siblings of currently-enrolled Heritage Charter students. (Roner said nothing about how many were from dependents of current employees or board members of the Heritage Charter schools.) Roner did not answer the obvious question “If it’s not an issue at all, why do it?” None of the EUSD Board members insisted on an answer to this pertinent question, not even the one who should be sympathetic to the residents who objected to the change of priorities, Jose Fragozo, although he did ask the question.
The first speaker, Pam Stahl, asked that very question. John Ward noted that he was not at all opposed to charter schools, but the reasoning behind the 1992 legislation that outlined charter school formation and regulation, was to support innovative teaching. California Ed Code outlines 16 requirements of charter schools, including the requirement to reflect the demographics of the school district in which it exists. Changing the rank of priority for students within the Oak Hill area from first to third would undermine achieving that demographic goal. Gorgine Tomasi said the original intent behind the charter school movement was to help the weakest students. Heritage did not represent the community it was supposed to serve since Heritage has very few English learners or disabled students. Delores McQuiston also asked why make the change if the revision was not significant? She pointed out that the testing scores for the Heritage schools had dropped significantly in the last two years since the 2013 change of admission priorities. Is that the reason Heritage wants to change? Chris Nava noted that the reason for the 2013 change of admission priorities, was due to the complete mismatch between EUSD demographics and Heritage Charter schools’ demographics. She noted that the Heritage Charter Schools received SB 740 extra funding, because the schools are located within the Oak Hill School area, where 70% of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches. Heritage schools don’t serve any lunches, Nava added. Tania Bowman restated the demographic non-compliance issue, quoting some startling statistics. She reminded the Board that they had a duty to make sure all charter schools met the 16 required elements, as well as the additional SB 740 guidelines. Nina Deerfield said she had interviewed several Escondido School Board members, and their answers indicated a lack of knowledge of the laws governing schools, and did not carry out their fiduciary duties.
If any of the speakers should have made an impression on the Board members, it was former Board member Linda Woods. She quipped that in order “to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been.” She noted that according to the State Treasurer’s website, since 2012-2013 school year, Heritage K-8 schools have already been awarded $1.5 million dollars of extra state SB 740 money to help pay for their facilities—solely because they are located in in the Oak Hill area with its high percentage of financially disadvantaged students. Woods said that Board Member Joan Gardner had often chided her as being too trusting. Gardner had been proved right again, because Woods had genuinely trusted that the changes mutually agreed upon just 21 months ago, to give first admission priority to Oak Hill students, had been made in good faith by both the EUSD Board and the administration of Heritage Charter schools. She too wondered why make the change if it would have no real impact on enrollment? She ended with the excellent observation that “if you go back to the way you always did it, you’ll get what you always got.”
So why make the changes? Is it really only to “keep families together”? Or is it to reduce the number of Oak Hill students being admitted because they may be lowering the testing score averages of Heritage Charter Schools? It seems wrong that the Heritage Charter schools receive all the extra money because they are located within Oak Hill’s area with its high percentage of disadvantaged students, yet Heritage does little to serve those disadvantaged students. Changing its priority list is not illegal, because the language in SB 740 is very vague—the students who live in Oak Hill only have to be given a “preference”. But, this change of priorities is surely counter to the intent of SB 740. However the new Board Members, Dr. Gary Altenburg and Zesty Harper were handpicked by Dennis Snyder. The Board President Paulette Donnellon and Board Clerk, Joan Gardner are in Snyder’s corner in what has become, unfortunately, a political dispute. Fragozo seems to be intimidated by the rest. He said his main concern was to ensure that Escondido students received first priority over students outside the district, and asked Roner how many Heritage students were from other communities? Roner did not have that information, but it wasn’t very many he affirmed.
The Board voted unanimously to approve the changes. It’s time for the California Legislature to make some changes to Charter School Law and SB 740.