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Birmingham High's charter-conversion struggles show difficulty of reform

The Board of Education votes today on whether the Van Nuys campus should secede from L.A. Unified. Pro- and anti-charter forces have been locked in an acrimonious debate for months.

July 01, 2009|Mitchell Landsberg

Few chapters in recent Los Angeles public school history have been uglier than the one that is expected to culminate today with a Board of Education vote on whether to allow Birmingham High School to effectively secede and become a charter school. For months, the San Fernando Valley campus has been torn between pro- and anti-charter forces who have accused each other of, among other things, bullying, vandalism, burglary, racism and fraud.

It was, perhaps, fitting that the final days of the charter drive were dominated by a stir over a photo shoot at Birmingham by Sacha Baron Cohen, the comedian and star of "Bruno" whose raunchy alter egos have the ability to make almost anyone look less dignified than they are. Ramon C. Cortines, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Tuesday that he was disciplining the school's principal and athletic director for allowing the photos, but if the charter passes, that will be moot.

Intentionally or not, school district leaders have managed to send a powerful message -- perhaps summed up as "Are you nuts?" -- to other public schools that might be considering charter conversion.

"I think what Birmingham is going to mean in a larger sense is how difficult it is to reform within the system -- how many different kinds of special interests there are, all pulling in a different direction," said school board member Tamar Galatzan, a Birmingham alumna whose district includes the Van Nuys school. "Other schools might look at Birmingham and see that going charter might not be as easy as they thought, and it might not bring the same kinds of benefits that they expected."

If approved, Birmingham would become the fourth large high school in the district to convert to a charter. The others are Palisades, Granada Hills and Locke in South L.A. Charters are publicly funded schools that run independently. They are subject to broad oversight, usually by the local school district that authorizes them.

Disenchantment with Los Angeles Unified has led a number of schools to explore the possibility of breaking away as charters, and principals and teachers have been keeping an eye on events at Birmingham. Although Cortines has repeatedly said that he supports charters, the district has, in recent months, increased costs and reduced revenue for new charters, and offered sweeteners to schools that remain in the district.

Verdugo Hills High School in Tujunga had been considering a charter drive late last year when Cortines offered it partial autonomy from district oversight. "I think it was the district's attempt to get us to look at some other options besides charter," Principal Diane Klewitz said. "I saw that as a positive thing, quite frankly, that Mr. Cortines was willing to work with us." She added that the school is still weighing a charter bid.

Cortines said he had offered similar flexibility to "several other" schools that had been looking into charter status, including Taft High in Woodland Hills. However, he said, autonomy from the district is not nearly as important as flexibility in labor contracts, and that requires a separate agreement with the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. Union President A.J. Duffy said he supports charter-like freedoms for schools, but believes they can achieve that within the existing union contract.

A majority of Birmingham teachers signed a petition late last year to convert to charter status, but the campaign splintered early this year when some teachers in the Daniel Pearl Journalism Magnet asked to remain within Los Angeles Unified as a separate school. Cortines gave that his blessing, despite strenuous objections from the charter proponents, who believe he is violating state law. They say the law requires conversion charters to be given to all the facilities on a campus; the district disagrees with that.

Later, Duffy backed a plan to form yet another school on the campus, which was initially proposed as part of the district's Innovation Division. Plans for that school were recently presented to local district officials, who have kicked them back for more work. (The Birmingham campus, the largest in Los Angeles Unified, already houses another charter school, High Tech High.)

Although charter supporters have insisted that Birmingham should remain intact, and some parents have protested the breakup, Cortines has insisted that the campus can house multiple schools.

As the charter campaign staggers to the finish line, there are enough recriminations to play out for months to come.

A group of pro-charter teachers filed a formal complaint this week with the state's Public Employment Relations Board contending that the teachers union had engaged in unfair labor practices by failing to support them and waging a "nonstop hate campaign" against the charter advocates. Duffy said there was no basis to the allegations.

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