Local News

Tuesday, Sep 04 2012 10:00 PM

School board agrees to charter for Abernathy Collegiate Charter School

Just over a month after it received a petition from a group of local families asking to establish a charter school, the Tehachapi Unified School District Board of Trustees on Tuesday night, Sept. 4, voted unanimously to approve a charter for the school, subject to successful negotiation of a Memorandum of Understanding to resolve a number of concerns raised by the district during its review of the petition.

Board member Jackie Wood was not present for the meeting. The remaining six trustees all voted in favor of allowing the Abernathy Collegiate Charter School to operate within the district — with details to be worked out between the charter school and TUSD Superintendent of Schools Lisa Gilbert.

Charter schools — tuition-free taxpayer-supported schools that operate with fewer restrictions than other public schools — have been legal in California for the past two decades.

With passage of the Charter Schools Act of 1992, California became the second state in the country (after Minnesota) to enact charter school legislation. The intent was, as the Act states:  "to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure."

Some charter schools are not site-based — they may, for instance, provide home-based instruction via computer. But founders of Abernathy Collegiate Charter School told the district in its petition that it wants to establish a physical school with school hours longer than those of TUSD and more days of school, as well.

The school plans to open next August with 100 students in grades 6 through 9, adding a grade each year to become a grade 6-12 school. Its mission is to “provide exemplary, site-based, standards-based college preparatory education for public middle and high school students.” Its vision “will be to offer any student the same quality of education offered by the most academically distinguished schools in California. Its graduates will be prepared to enter and thrive at the world’s finest colleges and universities.”

If there are more students wishing to attend the school than space allows, enrollment will be decided by way of a random drawing.

Eventually, founders of the school said they hope that Tehachapi Unified will allow students to participate in extracurricular activities, including sports. And it would like the district to provide classroom and other facilities.

William A. Hornback, an attorney with Schools Legal Service, which represents the district, was on hand at Tuesday night’s meeting, having met with the board in closed session for about an hour to discuss anticipated litigation.

The agenda for Tuesday night’s special meeting, available online for several days in advance of the meeting, included nearly 500 pages from Abernathy, including the plan for the school, an operating budget and signatures of parents of more than 100 students who said they want to enroll their youngsters in the school.

Also included was  13-page document outlining “findings of fact” that the board could use in case it decided not to grant the charter.

Hornback said that since that document was finalized last week, the district, the Abernathy parents and their attorney, continued to have discussions and have a draft Memorandum of Understanding nearly complete that he believes will address the concerns to the satisfaction of all concerned.

Among concerns addressed in the document prepared in case the board elected to reject the charter had to do with a lack of due process for expelled students, how assets of the school would be handled if the school were to dissolve, possible conflicts of interest with school directors and budget issues, as well as the location of the school..

However, Hornback said he believed that the issues raised by the district could be resolved and advised the board that should it choose to approve the charter, it could require that the issues be resolved to the satisfaction of the district superintendent, subject to agreement by the Abernathy board.

Among items to be resolved, although not addressed in the 13-page document, was whether the charter school would be subject to the requirements imposed upon the district as a result of its agreement with the Office of Civil Rights and Dept. of Justice in the aftermath of the Sept. 2010 death of Seth Walsh.

At the public hearing in July, Teresa Foley, the lead petitioner for Abernathy, asserted that the charter school would not be subject to the requirements of the Resolution Agreement enacted by the district. That agreement requires training, curriculum, and other changes that have been highly contentious.

The district has adopted curriculum for grades K-5, but is still working on the curriculum for grades 6-12, expected to be more contentious because of the specific requirement that it address sexual as well as anti-bullying themes.

A number of parents have indicated that they will pull their students out of TUSD if the curriculum is adopted — and some indicated that the charter school would be an alternative for them.

Hornback told the board Tuesday night that there are discussions between the district, Abernathy and the Office of Civil Rights and that the MOU will address the matter.

Following the meeting he said he does not expect the MOU to come back to the board for approval since the board delegated it to the superintendent to complete. He said he does not know what position OCR might take regarding the matter. He said he expects the MOU to be complete within a matter of weeks.

Gilbert expressed support for the charter, subject to successful completion of the MOU. She noted, however, that contrary to statements made at the July meeting, that TUSD will not receive funding based on average daily attendance for charter school students.

Board members seemed cautiously supportive, asking questions of Foley and David Ellms, a Palmdale School District teacher with a school administrative background who is on the Abernathy board.

Trustee Leonard Evansic spoke to efforts by the district to improve curriculum and asked Foley what is wrong with what the district has offered.

She said it was not a matter of there being something wrong with the curriculum, but that Abernathy will offer parents more choices.

Foley also noted that the rules for charter schools give it more flexibility, including the ability to hire and fire personnel. Although a charter school can have collective bargaining and adopt salary schedules of a district, it is not required to do so — and the budget for Abernathy shows lower salaries than those currently paid by TUSD, according to the district’s evaluation.

Trustee Tim Traynham expressed concern about district facilities, asking Hornback what would happen if the district did not have the ability to provide facilities.

Essentially, Hornback said, if Abernathy is established and is serving at least 80 students in the district — whether approved by the district, the county or the state — TUSD will be obligated to provide facilities, including classrooms and support areas, possibly to include playing fields and gymnasium time. How much Abernathy will pay for use of the facilities is subject to negotiation.

Facing the board was the possibility that it could deny Abernathy the charter and end up having either the county or state approve the charter.

Parents at the meeting implored the board to approve the school.

One parent, who has home-schooled her children, said she feels shut out by the district because home-school students aren’t allowed to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. She said she hopes that including a charter school in the district’s offerings will make Tehachapi more inclusive.

Board President Mary Graham addressed the crowd of about 35 people after the vote.

“We often say it’s what’s best for the kids,” she said, speaking of motivation of the board and educators, adding that a charter school "may be what is best for some students and their parents."

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