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Parents at Pasadena charter school left scrambling after campus closes

Parents at Celerity Exa Charter in Pasadena were left scrambling to find a new school for their children last week after the campus abruptly shut down.

About 300 students attended the elementary school, which was on the campus of William Carey International University. That location was deemed “dangerous and unsafe” by the Pasadena Fire Department this week after an inspection found it lacked automatic sprinklers and fire alarms and that classes were illegally held in a basement.

Celerity Educational Group, which operates eight charter schools in California and six in other states, unsuccessfully sought alternative locations in recent days and decided to surrender its charter and close.

Celerity officials maintain that the location is safe for students and that the inspection was the culmination of a series of clashes with the Pasadena Unified School District. Charter officials say the district has fostered a difficult working environment and stymied efforts to find suitable alternatives.

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District officials say they were nothing but accommodating and that missteps by the charter operator led to its own demise.

“We’re not mean-spirited or vindictive. We didn’t make a concerted effort to shut them down to recapture those kids,” said interim Supt. Brian McDonald. “We bent over backward to accommodate them.”

State law calls for public school campuses to be “shared fairly” among traditional schools and charters that are publicly funded. Proposition 39, approved in 2000, requires “reasonably equivalent” conditions for charter schools and allows them the right to use empty classrooms at underused campuses.

These arrangements must be renewed annually, and charters risk having to change locations.

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Last year, Celerity Exa was on a district-owned campus, but the charter’s paperwork to accept the offer for this year wasn’t received in time, district officials said. The district informed Celerity that it would have to move or pay a market-rate price in excess of $1 million a year to lease the property, far higher than it had paid previously.

The school opted to move and found space at William Carey International. A complaint from a parent spurred the fire department’s inspection.

Celerity proposed a campus currently occupied by another charter, but district officials said the property would first have to be inspected to ensure it can safely accommodate additional students. It was then that Celerity opted to close.

In a letter to Pasadena Unified, director Vielka McFarlane wrote that district staff were “committed throughout the process to prevent Celerity from operating anywhere within the district.... This posture was a disservice to the Pasadena parents and students who had chosen to attend Celerity Exa Charter School.”

Curt Hessler, who serves on the Celerity Education Group board, said the school had faced constant resistance from the district.

“It’s been a couple years of pretty steady harassment,” Hessler said. “It became impossible. It was clear they wanted to put bureaucratic obstacles in the way. But you have to put the children first.”

The tension between Celerity and Pasadena Unified is a symptom of the peculiar position a district finds itself in when working with charter schools, Hessler said. Charters are independently run but publicly funded.

“On one hand, they’re supposed to follow charter school law,” he said. “On the other hand, they’re supposed to be competing and see that their students don’t go over and attend our school.”

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Celerity intends to offer all teachers and staff positions at other schools.

Hessler said many families have said they will attend other Celerity campuses. Pasadena said about two dozen families have visited district offices to enroll their children. Others have gone directly to school campuses, said Adam Wolfson, a district spokesman.

Celerity was the charter organization selected by parents at a Compton elementary school who were the first to use a landmark state law allowing them to petition for major changes at their low-performing campus. The effort ultimately failed and Celerity opened another school in that city.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com
Twitter: @stephenceasar


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