Alby Dye, a Salvadoran-born Spanish teacher, said she was among a number of Latino teachers who left in part because they saw the charter backers as biased against the school's Latino student majority.
"I was one of the teachers who initially supported the charter movement," said Dye, who has not yet found another job. What drove her out, she said, "is the quality of people within the movement in this school."
The charter advocates denied the allegation.
Virginia Witherow, the remaining Spanish department chairwoman, said she was offended by accusations of racism.
"It hurts," she said. "because I wound up losing some of my best friends. . . . Literally, two of my best friends. I would feel very uncomfortable talking to them now."
Wednesday's opening ceremony at the school's football stadium featured speeches by local, state and federal officials. Notably absent was L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines (although school board member and Birmingham alumna Tamar Galatzan was present).
The festive atmosphere came against a backdrop of challenges, chief among them the loss of a $5-million loan that was supposed to tide the school over until public funds arrive in October. According to Coates, Birmingham had an agreement with Charter School Capital, which specializes in financing for charter schools, but the lender backed out after the district was sued last month by a group of former school employees who demanded that the charter be overturned. Ironically, one of the plaintiffs' arguments was that the school had not demonstrated that it had fully secured the loan, but had merely received a pre-qualification letter.
That is true, according to Anita Landecker, who assisted Birmingham in her position as executive director of ExEd, a nonprofit that provides back-office services for charters. "Charter School Capital didn't want to sign a contract until the charter was approved," Landecker said.
Desperate for cash, Coates turned to Los Angeles Unified, which faces a money crunch of its own. Cortines agreed to lend the school $3 million -- if the school first resolves a dispute with the magnet over classroom space.
Coates said Birmingham's new governing board would take up the offer, but would continue to look for alternative funding.
In addition to the cash problems, Birmingham faces a probe by L.A. Unified's inspector general, Jerry Thornton. Thornton declined to say what he was investigating, but Coates said it concerned allegations that some teachers were receiving excessive salaries, chief among them Athletic Director Rick Prizant, a charter supporter.
Union activists have alleged that he earns $140,000 a year. Prizant said it is less than that, roughly in the $120,000 range, including about $40,000 in stipends for extra work. Coates defended him, saying that he works "24/7" and deserves the income.
If Coates needed any more reminders of the tough job she faces as principal, she got it when she began the opening ceremony by asking assembled students, "Are you guys excited?" The response came in a lackluster chorus: "No!" Undeterred, Coates said, "Not about the first day of school -- about the charter!" The no's grew louder. Coates, who has been Birmingham's principal since 2005, shrugged it off.
Still, some students seemed intrigued by the school's new status.
"At first, I was just like thinking, 'How's it going to be different?' " said junior Jennifer Romero, 17. "But now that I'm getting the hang of it . . . I'm pretty excited about the school year. I'm pretty sure it's going to be good."