The first effort in Orange County to use a controversial state law to transform a low-performing school into a charter campus has failed, but organizers said Friday they would not give up.
At a standing-room-only meeting Thursday, the Anaheim City Board of Education unanimously rejected a petition by parents to convert Palm Lane Elementary into an independent charter, which are publicly funded and usually non-union.
Under a 2010 state law known as Parent Trigger, parents at low-performing campuses may petition to overhaul their campuses by changing staff and curriculum, closing the campus or converting to a charter.
Parents at the school, located in an overwhelmingly low-income immigrant community, failed to collect valid signatures representing 50% of pupils enrolled, as the law requires, said Supt. Linda Wagner. She said the district found that 133 of 488 petitions were not valid because the students had moved away, could not be found in the district records or were not signed by a parent or legal guardian, among other reasons. The district verified 48.4% of enrolled students.
But former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who wrote the law and now helps parents improve their schools through her new Center for Parent Empowerment, accused the district of manipulating the numbers. The district rejected 12 petitions because those signed could not be reached "after multiple attempts," according to documents, but Romero said officials never asked petition organizers to help locate them, as she said state regulations require.
"They didn't want to find these parents," Romero said, noting that the additional 12 signatures would have hit the 50% required threshold and changed the result.
The superintendent said the district also found other flaws in the petitions, however, including a failure to fully describe the charter reform desired or list the lead sponsor. Wagner said district officials also believe that Palm Lane was not even eligible for a trigger campaign because the state last year suspended annual standardized tests needed to ascertain if the campus has failed to make adequate academic progress. Such a finding is required for trigger campaigns.
She said the petition effort, however, did prompt officials to "more deeply listen" to parent concerns in 30 small-group meetings with almost 100 parents. Wagner acknowledged that the percentage of students doing grade-level work is still too low but said it has doubled in math to 53.7% and tripled in English to 38% between 2002 and 2013.
"Granted, it's not the highest achievement but the growth rates are one of the highest in Orange County," she said.
To boost performance more quickly, she said she has replaced the principal and 10 teachers, invested in 270 new computers and won a $1.5-million grant for a sports-based math program, among other changes.
Romero, however, said such efforts are too little, too late. She said she was confident that parents, who have 60 days to collect the additional signatures needed, would succeed.
She also said she was unsurprised that this petition campaign, like others tried so far in Compton, Adelanto and elsewhere, had sparked controversy and allegations on both sides of coercion, teacher union pressure and improper promises of gifts to sign or rescind signatures.
"Power won't concede power without a fight," Romero said. "This is what this is all about."