An audience of approximately 250 packed the Mar Vista Recreation Center for an education forum April 14 to learn about school choice, charters sharing space with community schools and how the Los Angeles Unified School District’s $404 million budget shortfall will affect students.

Organized by the Mar Vista Community Council, the community forum was designed to give Mar Vista schools an opportunity to showcase their respective programs for parents and prospective students.

Over 20 schools, including traditional, charter and private, were represented at the education summit and a diverse panel of guest speakers was invited to answer questions on a variety of issues.

Babak Nahid, the co-chair of the community council’s education, arts and culture committee, said the event had been planned several months in advance and he was pleased with the turnout as well as the information shared between the audience and the panelists.

“I think there was a real sense of success with the summit,” Nahid told The Argonaut. “There were some very positive, energetic discussions between school representatives and parents, and a lot of good questions asked by parents during the discussions with the panel.”

Dechel Byrd, an assistant principal at Mark Twain Middle School in Mar Vista, saw the turnout on a Thursday night as evidence that local councils have taken it upon themselves to become more active in learning about their local schools and their strengths and concerns.

“It’s really wonderful that Mar Vista and other communities’ councils are reaching out to have an educational component because it’s really important to be in partnership with a community that serves the students,” said Byrd, whose daughter attends Goethe International Charter in Del Rey. “It’s wonderful that there are a lot of families out to see what type of programs are available and how each school can promote the various choices that parents can choose from.”

The segment of the education forum that arguably drew the most attention was the question-and-answer session between the panel and the audience, where discussion topics included the budget deliberations with LAUSD, the role of charter schools in public education, colocation and the importance of parental involvement.

LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer stressed that schools where there is participation by parents in their children’s academic lives are typically high performing. “Where there is strong parental engagement, schools are strong,” he told the audience.

Sarah Auerswald was a member of the panel and as a parent activist, she feels that the forum was a good avenue for mobilizing the community to take even more interest in the state of public education.

“I thought that it was a great forum for people to ask questions about a lot of the things that they are really concerned about,” Auerswald said.

Educators possibly losing their positions due to the district’s fiscal crisis, as well as teacher pension reform were also deliberated.

Over 3, 000 teachers have been issued layoff notices by the school district, and Zimmer said he would do everything in his power to prevent any teacher in his district from being laid off. “I will personally not rest until all RIF (Reduction In Force) notices in District 4 are rescinded,” he pledged.

The ongoing challenges of charter operators sharing space with neighborhood schools was inevitably raised, as it has been in many community forums on the Westside during the last three months. Colocation, where a community school shares communal space with a charter school, has become an increasingly heated discussion point among parents and educators as charter operators have begun to explore plans to expand and are asking LAUSD for more classrooms, which they are entitled to under Proposition 39.

Prop. 39 is a state law that was created through a ballot initiative in 2000. It allows charter operators to have equal access on community school campuses where classrooms are underutilized or vacant. The California Charter Association accused LAUSD of not abiding by the new law and took the district to court last year.

LAUSD has been reluctant to discuss what the criteria is for deciding which rooms at a particular school are available, and often parent centers, intervention rooms and laboratories are being offered to charter organizations, which has angered parents at community schools and caused what some feel is unnecessary tension between traditional schools and charters.

In Mar Vista, Ocean Charter is involved in a colocation plan with Walgrove Elementary, WISH Charter has been offered five rooms at Mar Vista Elementary School’s campus and Inner City Education Foundation (ICEF) has applied for space at Grand View Boulevard Elementary School.

Many Grand View parents, as well as the school’s principal and teachers have expressed reservations about colocation.

“All children should have a place to go to school, but if a charter takes away spots from children who want to attend a neighborhood school, then that’s a problem,” said Auerswald, who has a son who attends a charter school in Los Angeles and another at Grand View.

Green Dot Public Schools Executive Director Marco Petruzzi sees part of the debate over colocation as a rejection by some of the idea of allowing parents the ability to decide where to have their children educated.

“Somehow, in this debate, there is this issue that choice is bad,” Petruzzi said.

The Green Dot executive said that choice was one of the hallmarks of the United States and most Americans want and expect to have the right to choose in most aspects of their lives.

“But somehow, we don’t think it’s right to be able to choose where to send our kids to school, and I think that debate has to end,” Petruzzi asserted.

Green Dot applied for eight classrooms at Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice earlier this year, but will not have a colocation there after parents protested the district’s decision to offer them space at the campus.

Zimmer said it is important to have charters as an option in school choice, but he disagrees with any arrangement that creates a situation where neighborhood schools are jeopardized.

“I’ve never believed that the home school should have any program disrupted or damaged in order to accommodate a charter school,” he said. “The commitment that I’ve made to families in Mar Vista and Venice is to make sure that the literal definition of that choice is true.

“When choice is real,” Zimmer continued, “it means that the powerful instructional programs in our neighborhood schools are viable choices for every family.”

LAUSD issued its final offers to the charter schools April 1 and the charter operators will decide whether to reject or accept the district’s offer May 2.

Nahid said that despite the challenging nature of the state of education, the time dedicated to organizing the summit was well worth the effort.

“It was a very beautiful experience, despite the fact that so much about education today, with budget cuts at the state level, is disheartening,” he said.

Jasmine Jaffe, who has a child at Mar Vista Elementary, said she came to learn more about colocation and thought the summit was very informative. She echoed many of the concerns expressed by parents at community schools of losing classrooms to a charter.

“(Colocation) doesn’t fit at our school because it will cause us to lose our science and computer programs if (a charter school) comes in,” she said.

Nahid said this is the first time that Mar Vista had organized an education summit on this scale and the committee hopes to hold events like this in the future. “This is the first in a series of revolutionary strides,” the committee co-chair said.

He also would like to see these sorts of forums replicated throughout the city, and says the fact that the community council hosted an event of this nature is a logical and natural adaptation in grassroots democracy.

“Neighborhood councils are often the crucibles for the community’s voice to be heard,” Nahid said. “It is an evolution of this experiment called neighborhood councils, and in Mar Vista we have been very fortunate to have a number of high caliber people who want to serve the community.”

Zimmer characterized the defunding of public education as a “civil rights issue,” and challenged the audience of parents, school administrators and teachers to get more involved in lobbying legislators to not take more money away from education.

“Anyone who claims to believe in civil rights has got to get involved,” he implored. “Education is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.”

Several members of the audience promised to write letters to their state representatives, Sen. Ted Lieu and Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, and ask them to not vote to cut education spending.