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Charter schools, L.A. Unified likely to strike compromise to avoid showdown at board meeting

Leaders of a group of charter schools and Los Angeles Unified School District officials were working up to the last minute to avert a public fight at Tuesday’s school board meeting over district rules the charters find onerous.

By late Monday, sources on both sides said a confrontation seemed unlikely, although no one was making public statements.

Last week, school district staff recommended that 10 charter schools be shut down and six others get conditional approval — with conditions that a charter leader described as unacceptable.

Never before had so many L.A. charter schools faced potential closure at one time — over conflicts they had instigated.

A showdown at Tuesday’s board meeting had the potential to get ugly, awkward and unpredictable — something that was giving pause to the combatants.

Charter leaders have said they are taking a stand against district regulations that they described as harsh, bureaucratic, inconsistently enforced and unsupported by state law.

L.A. Unified has insisted that its oversight of charter schools is a national model and that its rules provide accountability for taxpayers and protections for students.

The nation’s second-largest school system has more charters than any other, accounting for about 19% of enrollment. Charters are privately managed and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses.

One issue framing the divide has been the role of the district’s inspector general, who has conducted years-long confidential investigations. Charter operators want to narrow this power and argue that state law supports such limits.

In some cases, the inspector general has “done a good job of unearthing things that shouldn’t have happened,” said Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento. But its investigators also seem to “feel they can just come in and push people around. A number of the charter schools have found that very burdensome.”

The timing is less than ideal for charters. One recent inspector general inquiry uncovered enough concerns to prompt a January FBI raid of Celerity Educational Group. And the inspector general just opened a conflict-of-interest inquiry based on information provided by Partnerships to Uplift Communities or PUC Schools, another charter organization. Both Celerity and PUC had previously complained about the inspector general.

The path to compromise appeared when the charter group KIPP LA backed down on reining in the inspector general. L.A. Unified then recommended six KIPP schools for conditional renewal and one new KIPP campus for approval.

KIPP and the district still remained at odds over other district requirements, which could have made KIPP’s conditional renewal meaningless. But in the last couple of days, the ground appeared to shift.

Both sides had motivation.

The problem for the district’s charter division is that the school board might side with the charters. Since July, L.A. Unified has had its first board majority elected with major financial backing from charter supporters.

If L.A. Unified refuses to authorize them, charters also can appeal to the Los Angeles County Board of Education, which is considered pro-charter. County approval would mean that, while these charters still would be located within L.A. Unified’s boundaries, the district would no longer have authority over them.

For their part, the charters risked having to rely on the narrow four-member majority — which would include the vote of Ref Rodriguez. Prosecutors have accused Rodriguez of political money laundering, for which he faces felony and misdemeanor charges. He also is under investigation by the inspector general for alleged conflict of interest while he was an executive at PUC Schools, the charter network he co-founded.

For this reason and others, the L.A. teachers union Monday called for Rodriguez to recuse himself from Tuesday’s charter votes. The union also noted that Rodriguez’s legal defense fund had received a contribution of $75,000 from Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings, who sits on the national KIPP board.

Rodriguez, who has denied any wrongdoing, did not comment on the recusal request. But a spokeswoman for L.A. Unified said the district is not aware of a circumstance that would prohibit Rodriguez from voting.

Adding to the bad optics for charters if they continued to resist is L.A. Unified’s willingness to compromise, even if late in the process.

L.A. Unified has apparently agreed to make it easier for charters to decide how they want to manage and pay for the education of disabled students. Some charters had argued that L.A. Unified wanted to force them to be part of the district’s system for serving disabled students, for which they paid too much and received too little. Some district officials have insisted that charters are not doing nearly their share to help or pay for moderately to severely disabled students.

And the district also has made concessions that could make it easier for charters to use space on district-owned campuses.

The individuals who provided the details asked that their names not be used because they were not authorized to speak for either side.

“We are hopeful that after months of collaboration with district staff, the outcome will be a win for students and teachers,” said Jason Mandell, a spokesman for the five charter organizations that challenged the district requirements. He declined to discuss details of the talks, as did L.A. Unified.

In a letter to board members Monday, one outside group argued for more charter oversight.

“We’ve seen recently how the lack of access to financial and other information has limited the district’s ability to hold charter schools accountable to their public trust,” said Donald Cohen, executive director of In the Public Interest, an Oakland-based research and advocacy group.

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

anna.phillips@latimes.com

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