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L.A. Unified is rethinking offers of space

Official responds to a backlash from public campuses chosen to house proliferating charter schools.

April 26, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to calm a backlash at traditional Los Angeles schools, a top district official promised this week to reconsider offers of classroom space on those campuses to charter schools.

The idea of privately operated charter schools sharing space with regular schools was met with fury at many affected campuses, including Taft High in Woodland Hills and Crenshaw High in South Los Angeles. Teachers and parents have complained that their own reforms and programs would be harmed.

Charter operators aren't too happy either: Many still await offers, while others are considering whether proposed deals are affordable or adequate.

Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines stepped into the fray with unscheduled remarks at a "town hall" this week before a standing-room-only audience of more than 800 in Taft's auditorium.

"I want to review each issue," Cortines said. "We had to pause, take a breath and look at . . . what we must do for charter schools but also how it affects . . . the regular school."

Under state law as well as a recent settlement of litigation, the Los Angeles Unified School District must share facilities "fairly" with charter schools. Charters are independently run public schools that operate with less state regulation in exchange for boosting student achievement.

This year, 54 charter schools applied to house nearly 17,000 students -- almost three times as many students as previously. About 12 schools already share space with charters; that number could rise to 35 next year.

Charter operators have complained that they were last in line for classroom space.

Now, some people say the pendulum has swung too far toward charters. As one example, they cite the freezing of open enrollment permits at affected campuses.

Taft depends on attracting students from outside its attendance area to buttress honors programs and sports teams and for planned academies specializing in technology and teacher training.

Carmen Hawkins of South Los Angeles said her sons attend Taft for its safe environment and academics, an opportunity that should not be denied to future students.

Others worried about a return to overcrowding and about competition with the arts program from the invited charter, the CHAMPS performing-arts high school. CHAMPS founder Norman Isaacs, a popular former middle school principal who sat quietly in the front row at the Taft meeting, received little sympathy from A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. (Charters are exempt from district labor pacts.)

Duffy vowed to target the district and Isaacs' school with letter-writing campaigns and pickets.

"The hostility here is such that he would be foolish to bring a charter here," Duffy said. "We're going to bring that anger to his front door."

UTLA has helped organize protests at Wadsworth Elementary in South Los Angeles, and the faculty at Fairfax High has rallied community groups in opposition to the district's space-sharing offer there.

After the meeting, Isaacs said he would prefer space at one of several San Fernando Valley campuses that were closed years ago because of declining enrollment.

"The district has put these parents in a terrible position," Isaacs said. "I hear this passion. The district has to respond to this in some way, and we have to respond to the district."

Under state law, charter schools have until May 1 to accept offers. But Cortines indicated that the deadline might have to be adjusted.

Since April 1, the state deadline for making offers, the district has taken four schools -- including Nevin Elementary in South Los Angeles and Portola Middle School in Tarzana -- off the list.

Portola is one of three sites the district had selected to accommodate Ivy Academia. Another is Sunny Brae Elementary in Winnetka, which Ivy already is sharing.

Ivy co-founder Tatyana Berkovich said the district has tried harder to help charters but remains an inefficient landlord at best. The charter's bathrooms at Sunny Brae weren't ready until March 19, she said. Until then, first-graders had to use adult-sized, outhouse-style portable toilets.

In South Los Angeles, charter operator Michael Piscal requested space for five schools and received offers for three.

Piscal, founder and chief executive of the Inner City Education Foundation, said he would decline to place one of his high-performing charters at Crenshaw High because he didn't want to damage good relationships in that community.

But he might need to accept an offer at Westchester High, even though "they were less than excited about us coming there, and they made that clear."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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