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New L.A. schools chief Michelle King calls for making peace with charters

Recently hired school L.A. schools Supt. Michelle King on Tuesday called for traditional public schools and charters—groups often at odds—to work together, pledging to set up a conference where they could share ideas.

At a town hall event in Pacoima, before an audience of 700, King demonstrated a growing comfort in her new role as well as skill in framing responses that would appeal to those assembled.

Although it was not King’s first public event, the question-and-answer forum at Pacoima Middle School was an early showcase of her direct message to parents. A low-income neighborhood, Pacoima includes some popular charter schools as well as some traditional schools that have struggled for years with low academic achievement.

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The tension between charters, which are run outside of the district's control, and traditional schools, was underscored over the summer, when the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation circulated a draft proposal to pull half of district students into charters.

Months later, a district-appointed task force concluded that the rapid growth of charters had the potential to drive the district into bankruptcy.

“All of the students are L.A. Unified School District students,” King said. When it comes to delivering a strong education, “this is something we need to do together. I can’t do this alone.”

Charters are independently managed and exempt from some rules that govern traditional campuses. Most are non-union.

King also addressed concerns over state rules that require L.A. Unified to provide available classroom space to charters.

Sharing space is appropriate “because they are all public schools,” King said. “We have to get to working together to serve all kids.… It doesn’t help to have battles over property.”

From the beginning of her new role as superintendent seven weeks ago, King has said that she will take a collaborative approach to leadership.

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Tuesday’s crowd was a mixture of parents from charters and traditional schools. About half the parents asked their questions in Spanish. Several were challenging.

And King could not make everyone happy.

A man asserted that the district never fired teachers, but instead sent them to schools in low-income communities.

“We don’t want to fire folks, period,”  King said. The preferred process, she said, is to provide educators with assistance and guidance. When that fails, “we do take teachers and other employees to the Board of Education and they are dismissed.” This happens, she added, at every board meeting.

Several parents said they liked King’s message about collaboration.

“That she’s hearing us out speaks to her character,” said Gwendolyn Posey, whose daughter attends a nearby charter run by Fenton Charter Public Schools.

“At the end, we should be more focused on making the kids have a good outcome in life,” said Maria Jimenez, who has two children in traditional schools. “This should not be a competition. It affects kids and parents.”

“She’s hearing us out and taking the time to do that,” said Elisa Venzor, a parent at Pacoima Charter Elementary. She adopted a wait-and-see position regarding charter cooperation.

“It sounds good -- if they can make this happen,” she said.

The superintendent also noted that her top short-term priority is getting as many students as possible to graduate from the class of 2016.

The district appears on track for a record graduation rate, but observers have questioned the rigor of make-up classes.

King said that events like the Pacoima forum are important because the district’s strategic plan should not be hers alone but should result from input across the nation’s second-largest school system.

It’s still not clear how King will respond when voices answer back in cacophony or in conflict.

L.A. teachers union President Alex Caputo-Pearl on Tuesday said that teachers in all types of schools are already collaborating in some areas.

But his union has protested against locating charters at traditional schools.

The state charter schools association, meanwhile, is suing the district, saying that charters aren't receiving their fair share of either space at existing schools or money to build new ones. 

As far as academic collaboration, charter leaders look forward to setting up events that could draw in all kinds of schools, according to the association. But it added that the district has, so far, made no concrete moves in that direction.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume 

Editor's note: Education Matters receives funding from a number of foundations, including one or more mentioned in this article. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.

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