Ben Austin, executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Parent… (Los Angeles Times )
When Superior Court Judge Steve Malone ruled on an attempt to convert Desert Trails Elementary School into a charter school, he made it very clear what he wanted done. He ordered the Adelanto school board to accept petitions from parents of the failing school and, as he put it, to allow those parents "to immediately begin the process of soliciting and selecting charter school proposals." He gave the school board 30 days to act.
That was on July 18. The board chose to wait. Not until the 30th day did it meet to consider its response to Malone's order. It opened the meeting at 4:45 p.m. and met in public and private session for hours, discussing other matters, hearing public comment. It finally turned to this issue at 7:01 p.m. After some discussion, the board voted to accept the petitions that demanded a charter school but concluded that it was too late to open a charter this year, so it would proceed with another reform model. After more than six months of work and conflict, the parents got their petition accepted, only to be denied their school.
That seemed a fairly brazen act of judicial defiance, and parents were understandably outraged. Still, I thought the Adelanto board president, Carlos Mendoza, deserved a chance to explain the board's actions, so I tracked him down the following week. He insisted that the board acted within the law.
"We never felt we were doing anything illegal," he told me. "We never felt that we were in defiance."
The board, he said, had initially rejected the petitions because after they were submitted, opponents of the charter school circulated a counter-petition and some parents rescinded their signatures from the first. Under California's so-called parent trigger law, if more than 50% of parents at a school that has been designated as failing — Desert Trails, where more 75% of sixth-graders can't meet state standards for reading or math, has amply earned that designation — they can force change, including deciding to close the school and reopen it as a charter.
That's what parents did in Adelanto before their opponents began working on them to reconsider. But as Malone recognized, state law doesn't provide for rescission of signatures, and for good reason. Imagine if, immediately after an election, the losing side could urge those who voted for the winner to cast another vote reflecting their second thoughts. Our already complex democracy would be overwhelmed. That's particularly true in a school context, where teachers and administrators who fear a new charter could use their influence over parents to get them to reconsider.
So Malone ordered the board to accept the original petitions demanding a charter. Mendoza insisted that's exactly what the board did. The trouble is that the board had waited so long that there wasn't any more time to bring in a charter. Why did the board run out the clock?
"I, for one, did not want to rush into a decision," Mendoza said. "I wanted to think it through carefully."
Perhaps, but when the board voted that night, at least one member recognized that he was dancing on the edge of the law. The district had arrived that evening with a written proposal that ducked the charter question — suggesting that it had used the 30 days since Malone's order to craft a new plan, not to find ways to comply with it — and one board member, Jermaine Wright, was prepared to be held in contempt of court. "I brought my own handcuffs," he boasted. "Take me away today. I don't care anymore."
There is some precedent for this type of defiance, but it's a precedent that the Adelanto board might think twice about. In 1957, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus defied a court order directing Little Rock to proceed with its integration plan for Central High School. President Eisenhower tried to talk to Faubus, but when the governor stalled and equivocated — and flirted with a contempt citation — Eisenhower dispatched the 101st Airborne Division. Little Rock Central High was integrated at the point of bayonets.
Last week, lawyers for the parents at Desert Trails filed another motion with the court, this one urging it to force the school board to comply with Malone's order. "Such open defiance of this court's … powers should not be permitted," the motion concludes.
The Adelanto school board can continue this fight. It can spend limited resources to litigate. It can stall and snicker, evade and defy. But eventually it will discover what Faubus did: Our society depends on obedience to the law, and those who defy it usually pay a stiff price, as they should.
My advice to the board members: Keep those handcuffs handy.
Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is "Eisenhower: The White House Years." Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.