Two of the city's more successful charter-school companies sued the Los Angeles Unified School District on Thursday, alleging that the school district has failed to make space available for their students as required by law.
Two separate suits, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Green Dot Public Schools and PUC Schools, assert that the school district violates state law that stipulates "reasonably equivalent" facilities for charter schools.
L.A. Unified insists its policies are legal and that it offers space where it can in an overcrowded system.
Charter schools are independent public schools that are freed from many regulations and in turn are expected to improve student achievement. State law requires L.A. Unified to approve any sound charter school proposals, but they don't come with ready-made campuses. Already, 103 charters operate here, more than in any other school district.
L.A. Unified has provided furniture, fixtures, portable classrooms and temporary quarters benefiting more than 11,000 charter school students. An additional 2,300 are in new district buildings. And 15 schools that converted to charter status have kept their campuses. But thousands of the more than 42,000 charter students are still wanting.
PUC, which opened the first of its seven schools in 1999, has never had a district home, said co-founder Jacqueline Elliot. One location is a rented former private school where students cross a busy boulevard between classes. Another is a dirt lot with portable buildings slapped on top.
Once she was offered Highlander Road Elementary, a West San Fernando Valley school closed because of declining enrollment, Elliot said. That was miles from most students' homes, "but I said yes. I was so excited. It was a real school at last," she said.
That offer was rescinded, she said.
Officials have calculated that refurbishing Highlander would cost millions, which they judge an inefficient use of limited funds. Highlander became an issue in the school board race, when challenger Tamar Galatzan, who won her election this week, called for the school to be made available to a charter.
"I'm very hopeful that when the new board comes in we'll be able to reach a settlement quickly, if not before they come in," said Caprice Young, president of the California Charter Schools Assn., which also is a party to the lawsuits.
She said legal action made a difference elsewhere, including San Diego Unified, which now collaborates more closely with charter schools. "Districts and charter schools need to share the pain," Young said.
But school district general counsel Kevin Reed said that charter schools are asking to be better than equals. Giving them their desired contiguous space at a single location would force neighborhood children in regular schools onto buses and year-round schedules.
Despite a booming construction program, 141 overcrowded regular schools will still operate year-round next year; 7,000 students will be bused out of their neighborhoods.
"We're disappointed that they filed," Reed said. "We're all facility-starved in L.A."
Green Dot and the school system are also at loggerheads on another front. Last week, a majority of tenured teachers at Locke High signed a petition seeking the school's conversion to 10 small Green Dot charter schools.