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California

Can charter and public schools share space without fights? LAUSD’s $5.5-million solution

Students at recess
Students from Magnolia Science Academy 3, a charter school, and Curtiss Middle School, run by L.A. Unified, on a playground. The two schools share space in Carson.
(Nick Agro / For The Times)

Five schools, including three charters, share the Westchester High School campus, making for a potential headache when it comes to drop-off and pick-up, serving food and using the library and athletic fields.

A plan unanimously approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles Board of Education won’t fix all the logistics at schools like Westchester, but it offers $5.5 million to make sharing campuses more manageable and collegial. The funding works out to about $100,000 for each of the 55 campuses that host one or more charters in the nation’s second-largest school system.

The funding represents a notable collaboration between board members Nick Melvoin, a charter ally, and Jackie Goldberg, a charter critic. It comes just one week after an unrelated but key compromise between the same two camps over controversial fees that senior district officials want to collect from charters.

These recent actions show that board members can work together on divisive issues. They also underscore the importance of upcoming school board elections, especially with new rules that give school boards more authority to reject new charters.

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No one likes this sharing between charters and district schools, said Melvoin, “but we can do more to provide support to our district schools by easing the burden of sharing a campus. We can help the day-to-day operations run a little smoother, and maybe even promote a new spirit of collaboration.”

“I made substantial changes to Nick’s original motion and he accepted all of them,” said Goldberg, who added that the end result should be smoother lunch lines, easier student drop-offs and better play spaces.

The complications around sharing campuses are not all logistical. In some cases, a new charter school, which is run by a nonprofit board of directors, has recruited students by calling the existing local school a failure, because of low student test scores, for example. If students sign up, the charter can request available classroom space from L.A. Unified. The charter sometimes ends up on the same campus as the district-run school that it criticized. And, in an era of declining enrollment, the two schools are sometimes competing head to head for students — and survival.

Supporters of Catskill Elementary in Carson went house to house in the spring opposing recruiting efforts by Ganas Academy, which was set to open for business this fall on the Catskill campus. Round 1 has gone to Catskill after Ganas was unable to recruit enough students and will not open this year.

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Overall, however, little has impeded the growth of charters in L.A. Unified, which has had limited authority to reject them; 226 charters enroll close to one in five district students. Charters authorized by the state or county also can claim district space. And on many campuses, including Westchester, sharing arrangements are worked out with little acrimony.

The Melvoin-Goldberg resolution could offer more help. The grants must be spent on a facility-related need that the charter and district school agree on — and $100,000 only goes so far. The money comes from voter-approved school construction bonds set aside for charters, said Mark Hovatter, who heads the facilities division.

One possibility for the Westchester campus is a new sound system for the auditorium. At the Helen Bernstein High School campus in Hollywood two of the principals agree that a back gate needs to be fixed.

Melvoin and Goldberg, and their supporters, have somewhat different imperatives for promoting harmony.

Charter supporters are a key constituency for Melvoin — and he can be reliably counted on to speak up for families that choose charters. Goldberg ran for the board this year as a charter critic. It bothered her that the program at a district-run school could be undermined by having to give up rooms and facilities, such as a computer lab, to a charter. She can’t legally stop the sharing, but she can show she’s fighting to get a better deal for the district program.

She waged another battle on that front last week over fees billed to charters. The district has the right to collect a usage fee whether a charter uses a requested space or not. And if a charter requests more space than it’s entitled to — if it overestimated its enrollment, for example — the charter is subject to an additional penalty.

The district has failed to collect these fees for years. But under recent pressure from Goldberg, with support from Supt. Austin Beutner, billing letters went out in September. Officials claim 42 charters owed close to $7 million covering the last three years.

Four of these charters were up for their five-year renewal last week and Goldberg wanted to withhold approval until they paid up. Three charters pledged payment and fourth immediately cut a $58,205 check.

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It remains to be seen whether other charters will settle quickly or initiate yet another lawsuit between charters and L.A. Unified. Although the four charters got their renewal, they were on the defensive, a contrast with two years ago, when a more charter-friendly majority approved rules to make district oversight of charters less onerous.


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