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Charter school group drops two lawsuits against L.A. Unified

Charter school group drops two lawsuits against L.A. Unified
A recent proposal to put a charter school at North Hollywood High led to opposition from those at the district-run campus and at the charter. Still, more charters overall are getting use of space on L.A. Unified campuses. (LAUSD)

A charter schools advocacy group last week announced that it would end two long-running lawsuits in which it was seeking more classroom space and construction money from the Los Angeles school district.

The decision, the California Charter Schools Assn. said, reflects better relations between charter schools and the L.A. Unified School District. But the move also suggests that the litigation, which already contributed to significant gains for area charters, was unlikely to produce much more.

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"It takes time, money and effort to litigate," said Ricardo Soto, general counsel for the charter group. "Maybe it's better to see if we can find the time and opportunity for collaboration."

Privately run charters are exempt from union contracts and some rules that govern traditional schools. L.A. Unified has 224 independent charters, more than any other system, enrolling about 18% of district students. Finding locations to operate is one of the most difficult challenges charters face.

Under California law, charters with at least 80 students who live within district boundaries are entitled to facilities deemed "reasonably equivalent" to the public school system where they are located.

In 2007, the charter association first sued for greater access to classrooms and other space on L.A. campuses. That led to a settlement under which the nation's second-largest school system pledged to do better. Two years later, the association sued again — alleging the district was not doing enough.

To charters leaders, it seemed that L.A. Unified simply didn't want to make room for schools that were competing with it for students — and for the funding that comes with them.

But David Huff, an attorney representing L.A. Unified, said the reality a decade ago was that the district had too many students and too few classrooms. The problem gradually has eased, he said, because L.A. Unified was able to open new campuses and the number of students living in the district has decreased.

Since 2011, Huff said, L.A. Unified has made classroom offers to all eligible charters.

But the dispute continued for years, with the charter group contending the district's offers provided too little space. Some court rulings favored one side; some the other.

This school year, 83 charters requested space and 73 received offers; three others still could reach an arrangement with the district. Of the remaining seven charters, four withdrew their requests and three were ineligible, Huff said.

Both sides acknowledge that not every issue raised in the litigation has been resolved, but Soto said his side has concluded that the remaining differences are comparatively minor or could be dealt with outside the courtroom.

The second lawsuit, filed in 2016, demanded an increase of more than $80 million in the funds the district has set aside for charter school construction.

In legal filings, the charter association stated that L.A. Unified had pledged to reserve $450 million from a 2008 bond measure for charters. That amount later was trimmed by more than $80 million, Soto said.

A Los Angeles Superior Court judge sided with L.A. Unified, ruling a year ago that neither the ballot statement approved by voters nor other legally binding documents made a firm commitment on the dollar amount.

The charter group filed an appeal, but its decision last week will abandon that effort.

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A majority of the current L.A. Unified board members were elected with financial support from charter advocates — an alignment that seems to have proved beneficial to the independent schools.

At last week's school board meeting, a group of charter leaders praised L.A. Unified for adopting a more collaborative approach, which is expected to include more streamlined oversight of local charters. And at least two school board members said they supported giving charters multiyear agreements, so that the schools do not have to reapply for space every year.

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