Huntington Park leaders votes to ban new charter schools for a year

The small, densely populated city of Huntington Park is peppered with schools, about two dozen in 3 square miles. At least 10 are charters, and city leaders contend they’re bringing in unwanted traffic. 

Their solution is to try to ban new charter schools.

Huntington Park City Council members voted 4 to 1 late Tuesday to extend a moratorium on new charter schools until September 2017.

Both charter advocates and opponents were at the council meeting, each side armed with public speakers, wearing color-coordinated T-shirts and carrying signs.

At the back of the chambers, one woman sat holding a white poster above her head that proclaimed, “Give us a chance” and “Save our charter schools.” On the side of the full room, another woman stood holding a yellow poster in front of her that read, “Stand up to unregulated charter schools!”

Outside the meeting room, people on both sides lined the hallway. Some argued with each other about their goals, while others cheered loudly when they heard something they liked.

During public comment, parents and teachers addressed the council in English and Spanish, with charter parents extolling the quality education their kids receive because of school choice, while teachers from United Teachers Los Angeles talked about the schools they've taught in for years and supported city officials’ efforts to ban new charter schools for a year.

Last month, Huntington Park City Council members voted 4 to 1 to place a temporary, 45-day moratorium on new charters in the city. On Tuesday, they voted to extend that restriction for 10 months and 15 days, effectively making the ban yearlong. 

Charter schools are publicly funded but often are privately run. Unlike most traditional public schools, they can accept students from anywhere, not just from the neighborhoods around them.

Huntington Park Mayor Graciela Ortiz isn’t sure drawing students from elsewhere is in the best interest of the city. She also said she wants to see a greater focus on revitalizing businesses.

The city once was a cultural and shopping destination for Mexican and Central American immigrants in southeast Los Angeles County, but local businesses have struggled recently.

Ortiz says the city needs time to review its zoning policies and determine whether it has room for more schools. 

“Our community has enough [school] options,” Ortiz said. “Right now our priority is going to be development and finding park space, green space for our kids.”

In a September report to the council, City Manager Edgar Cisneros used increased traffic to justify the moratorium. “Communities within the vicinity of charter schools have experienced impacts to vehicle circulation, parking, and noise,” he wrote.

It’s unclear whether the city has the legal authority to ban new charter schools. School districts, counties and the state are the only bodies that can authorize or reject charter schools. Cities do control zoning, however — so if a charter wants to operate in a city, it often must request a municipal conditional use permit.

Huntington Park would be on more solid legal ground if the ordinance banned all new schools, including private and parochial ones, UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff said

“It is not clear whether...you can use local land use authority to make education policy,” Zasloff said. 

The California Charter Schools Assn. will consider suing the city if the moratorium passes, its attorney Ricardo Soto said before the meeting.

Ortiz said the city would consider placing moratoriums on other schools if they were trying to take up more city space. That’s not the case, she said. 

“They’re not knocking on our door,” Ortiz said. “It’s charter schools specifically that have been coming.”

In addition to being mayor, Ortiz is a counselor at Linda Esperanza Marquez High School, a Los Angeles Unified school, and a member of United Teachers Los Angeles. Huntington Park’s schools are in L.A. Unified, and the teachers union has opposed charter growth in the district.

Both Ortiz and UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl said the union did not influence, or advocate for, the moratorium.

At recent City Council meetings, Huntington Park residents have spoken for and against the ordinance.

Some parents with children in charter schools say that more charter options are necessary because the neighborhood schools don’t provide the same quality of education.

On recent state standardized tests, charter students in L.A. Unified performed better than students at traditional schools.

The charter school that Maria Pinedo’s son attends — Alliance Collins Family College Ready High School in Huntington Park — has smaller class sizes than the neighborhood public schools. She said she thinks the charter pays more attention to her child than those schools would have done.

“Our kids are succeeding and that’s what should matter to them,” she said of Huntington Park officials.

Reach Sonali Kohli at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com or on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli.

Times staff writer Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

11:05 p.m.: This article was updated with information about the Huntington Park City Council vote.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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