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Ruling supports Adelanto charter school effort

Judge rules that California's 'parent trigger' law does not allow signatures to be revoked, meaning Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto could become a charter.

July 24, 2012|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Desert Trails Elementary principal David Mobley receives signed petitions from parents in January. A judge has now ruled that the school board improperly allowed parents to rescind their support for turning the school into a charter.
Desert Trails Elementary principal David Mobley receives signed petitions… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

In an emotional celebration, Mojave Desert parents Monday hailed a court ruling that found the school board illegally rejected their efforts under the state's "parent trigger" law to transform their failing elementary school into a charter campus.

More than half the parents at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto had petitioned for the change at their campus, where nearly three-fourths of sixth graders fail to read and do math at grade level. But the board invalidated more than 100 signatures and rejected the petition.

In a decision made public Monday, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steve Malone ruled that the Adelanto school board improperly allowed 97 parents to rescind their signatures, which caused support for the petition to drop below the required 50% threshold. He ruled that the law does not allow recisions, ordered the district to accept the petition and gave parents the go-ahead to start soliciting charter school proposals.

"This is something huge," said parent Cynthia Ramirez, as tears welled in her eyes. "My daughter's got to have a shot at something good. These are our babies at stake here."

Carlos Mendoza, Adelanto school board president, said he would recommend that the board appeal the decision. He said he does not oppose charter schools per se but was concerned that petition supporters confused and misled parents.

Whether signatures can be revoked has been one of the most bitterly contested questions surrounding the state's pioneering parent trigger law, which allows parents at persistently low-performing schools to petition to overhaul staff and curriculum, close the campus or turn management over to a charter operator. Charters are independent, publicly financed schools.

Although the law was passed in 2010, organizers in only two school districts have launched parent trigger campaigns — Compton and Adelanto. In both cases, some parents have revoked their support of the petition after bitter charges and countercharges of deceit and harassment in the campaigns.

Gabe Rose of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit that lobbied for the law and assisted the petition campaigns in both cities, said the court ruling "takes away the key tactic of defenders of the status quo: to bully and trick parents into rescinding their signature."

Under regulations adopted last fall by the state Board of Education, Malone ruled, the parent trigger law does not allow recisions and explicitly states that parents "shall be free from … being encouraged to revoke their signatures on a petition."

But a petition opponent and Adelanto union representative both vehemently denied that they ever encouraged parents to revoke their signatures. Lori Yuan, the Desert Trails PTA vice president, said several parents told her they signed what they thought was a petition for school improvements and did not want a charter school.

Mendoza blamed the confusion on Parent Revolution's tactics to present two petitions — one for district reforms and another for a charter school. Organizers told parents that the preferred option was district changes and that, as leverage to get them, the charter school petition was also being circulated.

"We are concerned about bait and switch — that they can do it and get away with it," Mendoza said.

But Mark Holscher, an attorney with Kirkland & Ellis who represented the petition supporters pro bono, said the process was fully explained in English and Spanish in person, in the material left with every family and on the petition itself.

In January, petition supporters submitted 466 signatures for a charter campus — which represented 70% of the 666 students enrolled at the time. But the board invalidated 218 of them, driving down the support to 37%. The petition was resubmitted in March but the board ruled that it still fell short and rejected it.

In his July 18 ruling, Malone found that a school district could only verify eligible signatures — not invalidate them through recisions.

The judge noted that Desert Trails has been classified by the state as a failing school for the last six years and ranked as the worst elementary school in the Adelanto district.

That dismal standing, parents vowed, will change.

"Our children will now be able to get the quality education we've fought for all these months," said parent leader Doreen Diaz. "There is no way we'll back down."

Parents planned to unveil their next steps later this week.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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