by Margaret Liles
EUSD School Board Members Donnellon, Harper, Gardner and Altenberg approve new charter for one of the lowest performing schools in State of CA despite objections of residents. Estimated $18 million will be diverted from higher performing district schools over five years to finance second location of low-performing charter school.
“Epiphany… 1. an appearance or manifestation of a god or other super-natural being. 2. In most Christian churches a yearly festival, held January 6, commemorating the revealing of Jesus as the Christ to the Gentiles in the persons of the Magi
at Bethlehem: also called Twelfth Night.”
So the Webster’s New World Dictionary, slowly disintegrating on the shelf above my computer screen, defines epiphany. Well, after last Thursday’s decision by the EUSD Board of Trustees, Escondido will soon have a new charter school sporting the name Epiphany Prep. The Board approved the charter petition for a five year period beginning July 1, 2016. This is not a private religious school, it, like the other charter schools are funded by our taxes. The cost to the school district? $18 million over five years. When asked, President of Epiphany, David Rivera, said he named the school Epiphany, because the idea for the school came at a moment where life suddenly made sense. So, Webster’s definition number 3: “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something”? Well, maybe, maybe not. In 2001, Rivera started an all-scholarship private school, Nativity Prep. No doubt about that prep’s religious bent. Is the EUSD School Board going to ensure there is no religious training at this new charter? Doubtful. Charter schools have their own school boards, appointed not elected, with very little accountability to taxpayers
There were objections to the approval of Epiphany Prep. Georgine Tomasi, pointed out that only 17% of charter schools are performing better than traditional public schools while 37% of charter schools are performing significantly worse than traditional schools. She felt that charters were basically an example of taxation without representation, since taxpayers do not vote for charter school boards. She likened the current rush toward charter schools to a new California gold rush, and the new “gold miners” to snake-oil salesmen, out to strike it rich on plundered public school funding.
John Ward said he truly loved his new volunteer work at Lincoln School. A school with similar demographics to the first Epiphany Prep in San Diego. That Epiphany scored much lower on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress tests than Lincoln students. Schooldigger.com ranked the San Diego Epiphany at 5,434th out of the 5,567 elementary schools in California. (That’s 133rd from the bottom.)
Tania Bowman noted that Epiphany, who brags about focusing on at risk kids, had been recruiting students at a grocery store in the Mercado district. Why, she wondered, would the Board spend $18 million dollars on a school that didn’t perform as well as Lincoln? She also pointed out that just because a student was poor and Latino, did not necessarily mean the student was at risk.
Chris Nava said she had grave concerns about the ability of Epiphany to deliver. They had been very vague about their teacher qualification requirements, noting that the teachers were hired on an “at will” basis—meaning they can be fired at any time. They were poorly paid, and worked between 60 and 90 hours a week. How could the school hope to attract good teachers? She felt that the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), with its militaristic tactics was not a good fit for most children, noting that KIPP was often called the Kids in Prison Program.
After Rivera spoke, two of his students spoke, well they read statements, saying how much Epiphany had changed their lives. Dr. Jose Villarreal, who had been standing behind the students, to “give support” he said, went into a sales pitch for the school. He was followed by a prospective parent who began his remarks by telling “the ladies” who spoke before (Tamasi, Nava, & Bowman?) that they had “had the opportunity to not be at risk.” He looked forward to having his children in a school where he could talk to the teachers. Miles Durfee, Managing Regional Director for the California Charter Schools Association, said that the previous statements made about charter schools were incorrect and that Epiphany would have a high likelihood of success. Retired Supervisor of Santee Schools, and member of the Board for Epiphany, Lizbeth Johnson, said she would ensure that the new Epiphany would be secular, and teach science. Lead Epiphany Counselor Stacey Rawson claimed they never gave up on students and followed them through high school to make sure they were successful and went on to college.
Next to be heard from was Escondido’s crony capitalist network. Realtor Maria Bowman, said she could read a letter from the Mercado Business Association, but would simply say she though it would be a wonderful school that would serve marginalized students, a school in the Westside, that was so needed. Cathy Ramirez said she managed some 400 residential properties in the area, and knew that the longer school days offered by Epiphany would help her tenants greatly. City Councilman John Masson, touted the success of the Classical Academy, and noted Escondido had two successful charter schools, where 80% of the students went on to college. Former Escondido Asst. City Attorney, Steve Nelson, now a real estate developer, said it would be a top notch school, and there was a great need for Epiphany. So ended the public testimony about Epiphany. Before that testimony began,
EUSD Board President Paulette Donnellon avowed that the Board could only deny a charter school petition if it failed to meet one of five criteria. One of those criteria was that the school had demonstrated that it was unlikely to succeed. At that time, Vice President Jose Fragozo asked Superintendent Luis Ibarra why it had taken so long for him to get the updated petition—noting that he had only received it an hour ago, hardly time to analyze the information. It was clear, throughout the Board meeting, that Fragozo was not a happy camper. But then, when Donnellon and Clerk Joan Gardner often leaned back on their chairs and spoke to each other, literally behind Fragozo’s back, I began to feel his anger. I’ve no doubt that Robroy Fawcett’s earlier testimony, warning the Board that the U.S. Supreme Court was considering the proposition of one registered voter, one vote, and that the school’s voting districts might soon become illegal, especially District one (Fragozo’s district) didn’t improve Fragozo’s mood. Fawcett suggested that the Board decide to do away with district election in 2016. I think, as usual, Fawcett is dwelling in his own peculiar bubble, and that the Supreme Court will hold up the old rule of one person, one vote.
Board Member Zesty Harper, an alumna of Dennis Snyder’s Heritage Charter School, couldn’t contain her admiration for another charter school in town. After all, she concluded, “we don’t have a monopoly anymore.” Gardner said something about a labor of love, and parents should have choices, and her background is as a parent. All the charter schools were public schools. As usual member Dr. Gary Altenberg, had nothing to say.
Fragozo repeated his complaint that he had not been given the packet of information on time. He addressed Epiphany’s boasts that they had shown 20 to 24% growth rates for their students, but that was with students who were five years behind to start with. He then went on for some time about the WestEd study, www.eusd.org/PDF/0415_QTEL_report.pdf that showed that EUSD was failing English language learners. He noted that the district had outstanding teachers, what was lacking was leadership.
There was a motion to approve the petition. It was seconded. Four Board members voted yes. Fragozo abstained, because he had been excluded from pertinent information. His Abstention was questioned by Gardner and Donellon, they insisting that a Board member was only allowed to abstain if his vote would be a conflict of interest or something of the sort. Fragozo held firm with his abstention. One more charter school in town, that much less funding for the other schools. Guess ranking 5,434th out of 5,567 schools isn’t proof enough that the school won’t succeed.
Margaret Liles is a resident of Escondido. She is the past President of Zero Population Growth, San Diego Chapter, and Past President of the Escondido Chamber of Citizens, and is currently on the Boards of the League of Women Voters North County San Diego, and the Escondido Democratic Club.