Los Angeles Unified School District officials have initiated a process that will invite a charter operator to enter into a lease agreement to build a school on two acres of open land at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista.

The official announcement, which has been in the planning stages since early June, came from LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer at a community meeting June 15 at the elementary school, which currently shares space with Ocean Charter School, a K-8 school.

Zimmer began by discussing the contentious debate that erupted over the spring regarding colocations at several schools within District 4, which includes Mar Vista, Venice, Westchester, Del Rey and Marina del Rey. Charter schools petitioned for classrooms at Venice, Mar Vista and Del Rey sites, and existing charters were given additional rooms at campuses where a colocation exits.

Colocation, where traditional public schools and charters share campuses and other facilities, is occurring with great frequency on the Westside. It is an outgrowth of Proposition 39, approved by the electorate 11 years ago to provide charter operators with the opportunity to have campus space on traditional school campuses where classrooms are underutilized or vacant.

Charters are public, independently operated institutions that in many cases do not employ unionized teachers and have fewer students than traditional schools.

Ocean Charter’s fourth and fifth grades and its middle school, are on Walgrove’s campus. The charter was awarded an additional four rooms last month but accepted only two.

Zimmer noted that a degree of tension developed between some community and charter schools due to colocation. “It was a painful spring,” the school board member acknowledged.

He said that as an elected representative, the question for him was balancing two rights: those of students whose families have chosen charter schools, and the rights of community schools to grow programs that they hope will bring children back to neighborhood schools.

“Those two pressures kind of collided this spring,” Zimmer said. “And so my staff and the district facilities’ staff have really been trying to come up with long-term solutions so that we don’t have to go through having to chose between two things that are right every spring and having a lot of tension in the community.”

Zimmer explained that the open, unused space on the Walgrove campus could be a possible elixir to those troubles, and the first step would be a vote by the school board to authorize a notice of intent to lease the land.

The board voted June 21 to greenlight leasing the parcel, and now the process for choosing a school begins.

That will be somewhat of an arduous process. Krisztina Tokes, LAUSD’s facilities management director of planning and development, said those that wish to apply would have approximately one month after the school board vote to submit a Request for Proposals to build on the school site.

Prior to awarding any entity the right to build, an environmental analysis consistent with the California Environmental Quality Act would take place. Tokes said that is expected to last between a year and 16 months.

James Brennan, a Mar Vista resident whose daughter attends Ocean Charter, inquired about how the possibility of three schools occupying the campus would be handled. He also sought answers about having more students in an area where there are already existing schools in a radius of less than two miles: Beethoven Elementary and Mark Twain Middle School.

Eric Wise, a Walgrove parent who has lived in the area for 10 years, touched on some of the tension that has existed with Ocean Charter and the community school.

“We’ve had a terrible experience with them,” he said. “I think the charter’s biggest offenses are parking, trash and a total disrespect for the neighbors.”

Wise asked Zimmer to keep those concerns in mind when the board meets to decide which entity will be allowed to lease the unoccupied parcel.

Jefferson Schierbeek, an Ocean Charter parent who is also the school’s founding president, inquired if Ocean Charter would have an advantage in the selection process due to its six years at the Walgrove campus.

“The one question that I have is can and will previous occupancy on the Walgrove site be considered in the RFP?” he asked.

Zimmer noted that one of the most debated points of the spring colocation controversy was the definition of what is a classroom that is being utilized. By offering unoccupied land to a charter operator, that problem could be alleviated, he said.

“This also creates an opportunity for our charter partners not to have to worry about the facilities issue year after year after year,” he added.

Venice resident Karen Wolfe asked Zimmer to take into account a charter’s viability when considering which entity to choose, including how they are viewed by their neighbors and host school, as well as the land use ramifications of traffic and density that will come when building a new school.

“This was not considered when Ocean Charter came to Walgrove,” noted Wolfe, whose daughter will be in fourth grade at the Walgrove campus next year.

Throughout the meeting, Zimmer sought to reassure the audience that no one had been selected and that the June 15 meeting was only one in a protracted process.

“This is not a bullet train,” he stressed. “This is a process that has many steps along the way. There will be public input, and public comments.”

One of the tenets of CEQA is the right of the public to be heard on the environmental and construction portion of the project.

Ocean Charter officials were dismayed at what they believe is only a small window of time for those who wish to apply to lease the land. Ocean Charter Director Kristy Mack-Fett said she wants to work in collaboration with LAUSD, but would like all applicants to have an equal opportunity to compete for the lease.

“My concern is that there be a fair, open and transparent process with access for all qualified parties,” she said.

Due to what she feels is a small window of time for her organization to prepare and submit a petition, Mack-Fett feels other charters may have an advantage.

“I believe that the process does favor a large organization that has the personnel to draft a proposal more quickly than a smaller organization like ours,” she said.

Wolfe said she was surprised to hear that Ocean Charter representatives think that they might not have time to make a detailed presentation. “Since its inception, they have always wanted to have their own campus for a K-8 school,” Wolfe said. “Also, they have many parents who are architects and real estate attorneys.”

Ocean Charter is not the only school interested in building on Walgrove’s campus.

Green Dot Public Schools Executive Director Marco Petruzzi said his organization also plans to apply for the space on the Walgrove campus.

“We’ve been trying to find a Venice location, so hopefully this might be an option for a final location,” Petruzzi told The Argonaut after the meeting.

Green Dot has actively pursued establishing a charter middle school in the Venice/Mar Vista neighborhoods for several years. One of the speakers at the meeting, Barbara Einstein, whose daughters attended Walgrove, circulated a petition in 2009 seeking the support of local parents for such a school.

Green Dot sought to collocate with Venice’s Westminster Avenue Elementary School in the spring, but ran into a concerted vocal resistance from parents, teachers and volunteers from the school. Ironically, many of the parents at Westminster are advocates of charter schools and of Green Dot in particular, and signed the petition for a charter middle school that Einstein circulated.

“After children get to fifth grade everyone starts to realize that they have more choices,” Petruzzi said. “We’ve been talking to parents for three years, and we’ve been trying to open on the Westside for three years; we’re finally open.”

LAUSD gave Green Dot six rooms at Cowan Elementary School in Westchester last month. They also have a high school, Animo Venice, located at Broadway Elementary School in Venice.

Both Ocean Charter and Green Dot teachers are unionized.

Wolfe, who attended the community meetings on the Westminster proposed colocation, noted that there was not the same level of resistance at the Walgrove meeting that there was at Westminster.

“I think part of that was because Steve Zimmer brought everyone into the process very early,” she said.

Mack-Fett is also concerned about the possibility of having certain criteria in the selection process that excludes charter schools that have the same grade levels as Walgrove from applying. Green Dot, for example, will only be allowed to build a middle school if it is selected.

“If that were the case, that would eliminate Ocean Charter from the process,” she asserted.

The school that is chosen will be responsible for all costs of construction.

Tokes said the entire process, including selection of an operator and construction, would take approximately three to three and a half years.

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