The Vaughn Street elementary school in Pacoima, the San Fernando Valley's first charter school, is locked in a money dispute with the Los Angeles Unified School District that Vaughn administrators complain hinders them from instituting the innovations that are the reason for creating charter schools.
At issue is about $655,000 in the school's planned $4.5-million budget that school administrators claim is being wrongly denied them. They contend that the district has unfairly reduced the amount of per-pupil funding the school receives and is forcing the school to help subsidize districtwide programs it does not participate in.
On the other side, district officials say they are bound by a recent court order to apportion to Vaughn the same per-pupil funding level as the rest of the system's 419 elementary schools. Officials also believe that Vaughn should pay its "fair share" of some district programs, although they have agreed to explore whether a portion of the deduction can be waived.
The battle constitutes the school's first major hurdle in its bid for near-total autonomy since the Board of Education unanimously approved Vaughn's charter petition three months ago. The school, now officially renamed the Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, is one of about 20 charter schools statewide, which are freed by law from voluminous state and local educational regulations.
Since May, teachers, administrators and parents have worked to achieve the goals set out in the charter, such as slashing class size and assuming a large measure of control over matters like personnel and finances.
The current dispute hinges primarily on the district's decision that it owes the school an allowance of $2,800 per pupil. School officials contend that they are entitled to the full $3,100 the state gives the district for every student.
"They're asking Sacramento for $3,100 and say it's not enough. How dare they give me ($2,800) and expect us to be accountable" for improving student achievement, Vaughn Principal Yvonne Chan said.
But district officials say the $3,100 is an average amount for students in all grade levels. They say the longstanding practice has been to give elementary schools less than junior high and high schools, which have more expensive programs and facilities.
District officials also contend that the district is bound by last year's court settlement in the so-called Rodriguez lawsuit, which alleged that more money was being spent on suburban campuses than on schools in the inner city. The settlement, or consent decree, requires the district to equalize per-pupil funding, with separate norms for elementary, middle and high schools.
To give the Vaughn school more would violate the consent decree and would not be fair to the other elementary schools whose budgets are being changed to comply with the settlement's terms, district administrators said.
"What we're suggesting is that they get the same amount that every other elementary school in the district receives," said Henry Jones, the district's budget director. "We support the concept of charter schools and local decision-making, and we're doing everything in our power to comply with their needs. However, I cannot go beyond what I believe to be a legal impediment just to meet their specific need."
Chan said she would seek outside counsel as to whether Vaughn, as a largely independent school, remains bound by the Rodriguez settlement. But Peter James, an attorney for the district, said the state Charter Schools Act does not exempt them from court orders.
James added that he will meet with the Board of Education next week to see if it would consider asking the Rodriguez plaintiffs to make an exception for the Vaughn school, which serves a predominantly poor, minority student body--the very kind of school the lawsuit was meant to benefit.
But sources familiar with the Rodriguez case say a dispensation would be unlikely, since it would establish a precedent for a group of charter schools in the more affluent Westside to seek the same waiver.
State education authorities also said Thursday that the charter schools law, approved last September, does not guarantee that the full per-pupil amount the state disburses to school districts will automatically be passed on to charter schools.
"It's up to the districts how to divvy it up," said Joseph R. Symkowick, general counsel to the state Department of Education. "Even if we granted (the money) directly to a school"--as Vaughn officials may request--"it doesn't mean that the district, through a policy or a program or a court order, can't modify it."
Vaughn officials also contend that their $2,800 is being unfairly docked another $400 per student to help supplement the district's special education and integration programs. Jones said his staff would examine the special education deduction to see if it could be reduced but cautioned that the integration "encroachment" would remain.
Until the entire matter is resolved, however, Vaughn teachers and parents have agreed not to accept a $112,000 check the district sent to the school, leaving just $5,500 in the school's coffers. Chan said the school would accept the money only after the district decides whether to adjust the deductions, even though the school's refusal may cause difficulty in paying its bills.
Jones said he has advised the Vaughn administrators to accept the check and assured them that the district would issue a supplementary check if the deductions are scaled back. "It's being placed in the safe, and it's available to them when they want it," he said of the $112,000.