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Board rejects charter expansion

Times Staff Writers

A split Los Angeles Board of Education on Thursday rejected the expansion plans of one of the city’s leading charter school operators -- a move that almost certainly violates state law and firmly sets back future collaboration between the charter group and the school district.

The unexpected 3-3 vote by the Los Angeles Unified School District board defeated Green Dot Public Schools’ application for eight new charters. The group had planned to use several of the charter licenses to open new schools this fall in the Watts neighborhood around Locke High School -- one of the city’s worst. The board’s seventh member, David Tokofsky, recused himself because he works for Green Dot.

Board members and teachers union allies Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, Jon Lauritzen and Julie Korenstein voted against the charters, saying that despite the promising results Green Dot has produced at its other charters, they remain skeptical of the group’s reform model.

Their vote enraged Green Dot founder Steve Barr, who said it essentially ended months of talks between him, Supt. David L. Brewer and board President Marlene Canter aimed at a joint reform plan for Locke.

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“There is nothing to collaborate on ... now we’re outsiders,” Barr said. “We’ve spent hours and days and nights trying to collaborate.... I really have a hard time finding any reason to continue talking with this district.”

Charters are publicly financed, independently run schools that are freed from many of the restrictions imposed on traditional schools in exchange for improving student performance.

Barr is the largest charter operator in Los Angeles and has won strong support from such wealthy philanthropists as Eli Broad. He has clashed in the past with district officials over his aggressive push to expand.

The rejection also infuriated board member Mike Lansing, who represents Watts voters and has pushed unsuccessfully for dramatic reforms there. Lansing accused his colleagues of bending to the wishes of the influential United Teachers Los Angeles, which largely opposes the charter movement.

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“It’s really disappointing that we keep talking about wanting to do what’s best for children first, when without a doubt that vote was about a teachers union and three board members not having the backbone to stand up and do the right thing for kids over their ties to the union,” Lansing said after the vote.

In their recent reelection bids, Poindexter LaMotte and Lauritzen relied almost entirely on a total of about $1 million in union contributions. Korenstein has enjoyed similar support in the past.

Korenstein and an aide to Lauritzen said the votes were based largely on concerns about Green Dot’s academic record and more generally about the financial toll if students -- and the state funding that follows them -- leave the district for charters. Poindexter LaMotte could not be reached for comment.

UTLA President A.J. Duffy denied that he or other union leaders pressured board members to vote against Green Dot. In the past, Duffy has been sharply critical of Green Dot, making unsubstantiated claims that they handpick students to enroll and overwork teachers.

Before the vote, a senior district lawyer and the director of L.A. Unified’s charter office, Gregory McNair, repeatedly counseled the board to approve the charters. State law is clear, they said, that a school board can reject charters only if they fail to meet one of several criteria. Green Dot, the officials said, met all the criteria.

Barr said he would appeal the board’s decision to county education officials who could approve his charter plan. He pledged to open two charters that were previously approved near Locke and said he would continue to push to open others.

Parents and students from the impoverished, gang-ridden community also implored the board to approve the charters, saying they were desperate for an alternative to the low-performing, often unsafe district middle and high schools in the area. One middle school student tearfully recounted how she often is beaten up at school by gang members but refuses to fight back out of fear that she will be punished.

The board dealt with another potential controversy Thursday when it voted to renew an El Sereno school’s charter less than three weeks after district staff advised against doing so.

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In a March 13 report on Academia Semillas del Pueblo, the staff cited low test scores, unconventional instruction and potentially conflicting school governance. About two weeks later, facing growing political pressure from former City Councilman Richard Alatorre, former Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg and others, the staff changed course.

McNair said his staff reversed its recommendation on Semillas in light of new details that reflected more favorably on the school’s progress since it opened five years ago. He said the school’s multilingual curriculum, which includes Spanish, English, Mandarin and Nahuatl-Mexicano, can’t be judged against existing research and needs more than the board’s initial five-year certification to show results.

“This is a seven- or eight-year program,” McNair said. “I think we’ve reached an agreement that allows them to carry out their program to fruition. Now, we want to see some improvements.”

Under the five-year renewal conditions, Semillas must meet benchmarks that for three years would place it at least at the median of comparable schools in terms of state and national standards. Data show Semillas ranks lowest among similar schools.

Lansing, who voted not to renew the Semillas charter, said he was puzzled by how the staff switched its recommendation despite evidence of poor performance.

The 5-2 decision came after more than several hundred school supporters marched downtown from the Olvera Street plaza to the district headquarters.

Heath St. John, a Semillas teacher and parent, said opposition to the school was based on selective standards.

“Some people don’t understand our model,” he said. “This is the third charter school that I’ve worked for in California, and it’s the tightest-run ship.”

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The school has come under criticism for its unorthodox style of instruction and low standardized test scores.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

adrian.uribarri@latimes.com

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.


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