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4 Charter Schools Win L.A. Unified’s Endorsement

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four independently run charter schools won official votes of confidence Monday as the Los Angeles Board of Education unanimously endorsed new five-year mandates for the campuses.

Teachers, parents and other supporters had packed the board’s hearing room downtown, hoping that they would be rewarded for plunging into the waters of school reform.

Charter schools operate outside most state and school district guidelines, controlling such things as curriculum and finances in exchange for pledges of higher student achievement.

The audience erupted in applause moments after the school board voted 7 to 0 in favor of renewing the charters for Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima, Fenton Avenue Charter School in Lake View Terrace, Westwood Charter School and the Open Charter School in the Mid-City area.

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“We have earned credibility,” an elated Vaughn Principal Yvonne Chan told her assembled teachers after the vote. “They see school folks taking responsibility.”

The board’s decision came one week after an outside evaluation praised the charter schools for generally outperforming non-charter campuses while building strong parent and staff ties.

The appraisal concluded that the schools had met some, but not all, of their goals and that shortcomings were often the result of aims set too high.

Teachers embraced the findings as well as the board’s approval Monday.

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“I think they see the benefit of what we’ve started,” said Jody Sabah, a teacher at the Westwood school. “We have a tremendous energy among our faculty and we want to continue that.”

Board members offered their own applause even as one of them complained about not having enough time to study the outside appraisal, a document as thick as a telephone book that arrived on board members’ desks just last week.

“I think we have a lot to learn from you,” board member Victoria Castro told the charter advocates. "[You’re] definitely headed in the right direction.”

Monday’s vote culminated a frenzied weekend of activity for the charter schools.

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District administrators had sent all four schools lists of conditions required for receiving five-year contracts.

The Westwood and Open schools had no problems with the lists, administrators said. But Vaughn and Fenton, which both administer their own finances, sounded alarms.

Among other things, they took issue with a condition requiring the two schools to continue paying 3% of their per-pupil funding to the district to cover administrative costs. They argued that such costs should be charged on a “fee-for-service” basis.

District representatives spent five hours Monday negotiating with the two schools. By day’s end, both sides reported that differences over most of 21 conditions had been resolved.

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District administrators called the flap a misunderstanding, saying that they simply wanted to clarify details such as precise time frames of the new charters.

Indeed, the term “conditions” was amended in documents to “clarifications.” District administrators noted that answers to virtually all of the issues they raised are contained in the new charter proposals.

An outside arbitrator will be employed to help resolve the few remaining issues, including the 3% charge. Vaughn and the district also need to work out a system for maintaining school buildings constructed by the charter campus.

Despite the goodwill after the day of negotiations, a top district official apologized publicly Monday to the charter schools for creating confusion over the weekend.

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“Some of the late transmissions may have caused anguish,” Richard K. Mason, the district’s general counsel, told the charter school people. “We apologize for that.”

But apologies and haggling seemed to fade in the early evening Monday as the charter school founders celebrated their long-sought victory.

Chan treated more than a dozen of her teachers, administrators and parents to dinner in Chinatown.

“We fought hard for this school,” Vaughn teacher Suzanne Llamas said. “And we’re showing everybody we’re doing it.”

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