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Legal maneuver will not thwart attempt by teachers union to undo charter-school conversion

May 12, 2011|By Howard Blume | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A hasty legal maneuver by top Los Angeles school officials will not fend off a legal challenge of their decision to turn over low-performing Clay Middle School to a charter-school organization, The Times has learned.

To undermine a lawsuit filed last week, the Board of Education, at Tuesday's meeting, had voted to close Clay, which is located in South Los Angeles. The plan is to then open a new school, with the same students, on the Clay campus under the direction of Green Dot Public Schools.

School district lawyers believe that formally closing Clay could avoid a potential conflict with state law. California law states that charter conversions can happen when a majority of tenured teachers submit a petition. A parent petition can also result in a charter conversion, although the rules for that process remain in flux.

Neither happened in the case of Clay, and the L.A. teachers union on Thursday vowed to proceed with its lawsuit to block the handover.

In closing Clay, the school board was trying to buttress its March decision to let Green Dot take control. The legal challenge, filed by United Teachers Los Angeles, asserts that the charter conversion violates state law. The union lawsuit also contests the district's decision to let Green Dot take over a portion of Jordan High in Watts, raising the same legal objections.

District officials said they are less concerned with Jordan, but Clay would be the first local example of the handover of an entire campus without a petition. Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, however, the district has the legal right to shut down a persistently low-performing school. That's what will happen, on paper, with Clay. "It's still a conversion of a district school," said Jesus Quinonez, an attorney representing the union. Quinonez called the district's action "a cynical, underhanded attempt to avoid the clear defects" and that the action is further evidence of "the desperate, unplanned, 'ready-fire-aim' give-away-[schools]-at-any-cost approach of the school board and the district."

Even stronger words came from school board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, a union ally who represents the area served by Clay.

"It's not right, and it's not legal," said LaMotte, who is frequently outvoted by a board majority largely allied with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "This is all monumental because it's all political. ... Because it's LaMotte's school: Close it up." She added: "I'm sick of the individualism that goes on outside this board."

The union and other critics have asserted there are more effective, less disruptive ways to improve struggling schools.

"My intention," responded board President Monica Garcia, "was to support children." The school needs "a fresh start," she added.

"You don't know anything about this campus," LaMotte said.

At the request of board member Nury Martinez, Supt. John Deasy recited statistics denoting Clay's poor academic record, including 18% of students scoring as proficient or advanced in English and 9.9% in math.

"To leave things as is and not move forward is much more criminal than anything else we can do," said board member Yolie Flores.

Charter schools are independently operated, free from some restrictions that govern traditional public schools. Unlike most charters, Green Dot is unionized, but teachers at Clay, who work under a different collective-bargaining agreement, would not be entitled to remain.

Green Dot is best known for taking over Locke High School, the first time a charter organization had taken over a traditional, low-performing school in the L.A. Unified School District. Locke made significant progress on test scores last year, which was Green Dot's second year in charge.

The school's scores remain low -- as low as some schools where the district is replacing faculty or installing charter operators. Green Dot won praise from school board member Steve Zimmer, a frequent teachers union ally, for being willing to take on difficult traditional schools that other charter operators have largely avoided.

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