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Compton parents win a round in bid for charter school

Judge issues a temporary restraining order against school district's petition signature verification process for parents seeking to turn a Compton school into a charter.

February 04, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Eleazar Chavarin holds his son Diego, 18 months old, as he deposits his signature verification form last month at McKinley Elementary School in Compton.
Eleazar Chavarin holds his son Diego, 18 months old, as he deposits his signature… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Parents petitioning to convert their low-performing Compton elementary campus into a charter school won a temporary restraining order Thursday blocking district officials from requiring that they verify their signatures in person with photo identification.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert O'Brien issued the order in response to a class-action lawsuit filed against the Compton Unified School District by parents at McKinley Elementary School alleging that the verification process violated their constitutional rights to free speech and equal opportunity. A hearing is scheduled for later this month.

The petition campaign was the first test of a new state "parent trigger" law that allows parents to force sweeping change at low-performing schools, including shifting to independently run, publicly financed charters. Parents at McKinley submitted a petition in December calling for the campus to be turned over to Celerity Educational Group.

The district insisted that parents show up last week with photo identification to verify their signatures on the petitions. More than 60 parents boycotted that process at the urging of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles reform group and charter-school ally that organized McKinley's effort.

The petition drive has divided the community with charges and countercharges of lies, intimidation and deceit.

Shemika Murphy, a petition supporter and a named plaintiff in the lawsuit who has a second-grader at McKinley, was among those who refused to participate in the verification process. She and other parents said district officials already have their signatures on file and those could easily be compared against the petitions. Parents should be called only in the case of a discrepancy, she said, as is common when verifying signatures for ballot measures.

"It's wrong that we have to file a lawsuit to get the justice we deserve and get our children a better education," she said. "They should just give us what we want and let us have our charter school."

But another parent, Bonic Dotson, said she welcomed the process as a chance to clear up discrepancies over her petition. Dotson said her mother had signed the petition but said she misunderstood it and that the organizers had filled out the rest. Her daughters' birth dates, for example, were incorrect.

She supports a charter takeover to get her son needed help for learning disabilities but criticized both the district and Parent Revolution for not adequately informing parents about the petition process.

The district has canceled the verification session scheduled for Saturday, but an official said the district believes it will prevail in court and be allowed to continue the process.

Compton Unified launched the process last week with all the security of a ballot recount — or a Hollywood awards show.

The district's police chief, two officers and three neutral observers, including one from the L.A. County Office of Education, monitored the process at the school. Bilingual district staff members were on hand to assist parents, who filled out a signature verification form, sealed it inside an envelope and dropped it into a locked box.

The box was to be driven to police headquarters and booked into storage.

Alex Flores, Compton's assistant superintendent of human resources, said ID was requested to ensure that the parent and the petition signer were the same. Verification is often used for other school business, he said, such as student registration. But he said parents without photo ID could use other identification, including library cards.

In a few cases, school workers identified parents who did not have photo ID or who declined to present it.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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