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7 L.A. Schools Cry Foul on Funds

Officials at the charter campuses say L.A. Unified owes them $7 million. The district says it can spend the money as it wishes.

September 26, 2004|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Seven Los Angeles schools that left the Los Angeles Unified School District to become charters contend that the district is shortchanging them of $7 million in facilities funding and state money needed to educate poor, minority and special education students.

The Coalition of High-Achieving Los Angeles Charter Schools, which represents 14,000 students at the seven campuses, warns that if the matter remains unresolved, campus leaders will be forced to increase class sizes, lay off teachers or cut back on services for special education students as soon as next month.

The schools converted to charters, with Board of Education approval, to be free from most district rules and requirements but expected to receive state funding.

The district says it has a right under state law to spend the money as it wants or to charge the schools fees for facilities and special education.

"This is not about battling the district; this is about doing what is right," said Yvonne Chan, whose 1,680-student Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima was the first district campus to gain charter status in 1993. Chan, the school's director, added: "The parents and community feel like the board doesn't care about them -- that these are not district kids -- and that's a shame."

Of the state's 537 charter schools, about 87 left their local districts and converted to charters, according to the California Charter Schools Assn., a nonprofit group that advocates for charters.

Caprice Young, the association's executive director and a former Los Angeles Board of Education member, said the problems faced by the seven charter schools were not unique.

"Right now there's a lot of work that needs to be done," she said. The conversion campuses in Los Angeles Unified, she said, are "entitled to this funding."

The coalition schools demand that $3 million in state "integration" money earmarked for minority and low-achieving students, who make up most of their enrollments, be restored. The district notified the conversion charters last school year that it would no longer distribute those funds to their campuses, though they received them in recent years.

District officials say those charters are not entitled to the integration funding because they operate independently of Los Angeles Unified. "The district has the ability to decide where it believes the money is going to make the most difference and be most effective," said Gregory McNair, associate general counsel for L.A. Unified. "Money can be spent more effectively elsewhere, other than in charter schools."

The issue probably will be addressed in a closed session of the school board as early as this week, according to board President Jose Huizar. He said he was unsure whether the schools should receive these funds. "I don't think they should be eligible for every funding source in the district," he said.

The charter campuses also say the district does not provide adequate services for special education. Campus officials say they pay for their own counselors, therapists and other specialized staff. On top of that, they say, the district is charging them $2 million in special education fees and it has not explained where that money goes.

Los Angeles Unified officials say state law allows them to charge those fees because the district funds special education services to charters with that money.

McNair added that the district charges the same fee to the 49 other charters within district boundaries. The only schools that are not charged are regular campuses and 10 financially dependent charters, which allow Los Angeles Unified to pay their bills but are free to pursue their own curricula.

The seven charter campuses pay the district $2 million a year for the use of district facilities and for oversight fees. They say the district has never justified those oversight fees, adding that they pay for maintaining district facilities themselves.

McNair said the district had a right to charge charter schools for using its facilities, and it had a responsibility to maintain them.

The coalition and Los Angeles Unified are expected to resolve the facilities fee issue soon, he said, adding that "we have been discussing a fair calculation."

There is a history of tension between conversion charters and the Los Angeles school system. Last year, one of the district's highest-achieving campuses -- the 3,800-student high school in Granada Hills -- converted to a charter. But schools Supt. Roy Romer raised questions at the time about the financial, racial and academic effects on other schools.

Granada Hills Charter High School has since joined the charter schools coalition, which now includes Vaughn, Fenton Avenue Charter School, Montague Charter Academy, Pacoima Charter School -- all in the San Fernando Valley -- and Santa Monica Boulevard Community Charter School in Hollywood and Palisades Charter High School in Pacific Palisades.

The coalition was formed to work on common problems and solutions.

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