LAUSD BOARD MEMBER STEVE ZIMMER feels that allowing charter schools more space through a recent court order “could have very serious consequences.”

Stung by a recent court ruling that ordered them to reconfigure the method in which they offer charter operators classroom space in Los Angeles Unified School District schools, district leaders vowed to challenge the verdict and appealed the court order July 17.

Last month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Terry Green issued a ruling that found the school district in violation of Proposition 39, stating, “LAUSD failed to provide facilities to charter schools ‘in the same ratio of teaching stations as those provided to students in the school district attending comparison groups.”

Proposition 39, a 2000 voter approved ballot measure, provides charter operators with the opportunity to have space on traditional school campuses where classrooms are considered underutilized or vacant. School districts tender offers to charters at schools where such classrooms exist and charters have the option of declining or accepting them.

To comply with the court ruling, district officials would have had until this month to issue new offers to charter schools. The 2012-13 academic year begins Aug. 14.

David Huff, an attorney who represents LAUSD on charter matters, told The Argonaut that the school district has appealed the verdict because it puts district students at a great disadvantage.

“This order heavily favors charter students and gives them far in excess of what (charter schools) need and what their students would receive if they attended (LAUSD) schools,” the attorney asserted.

LAUSD officials say students at traditional schools could be displaced to other locations by this order, through involuntary busing and other means, in order to provide additional space to charter schools.

The California Charter School Association sued the nation’s second largest school district May 17, 2007 for what the association believed was a lack of compliance with Prop. 39. A court settlement was reached April 22 of the following year but the association filed to have the terms of the settlement enforced May 24, 2010.

In an interview with The Argonaut last month, LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer urged Superintendent John Deasy to challenge the court ruling. “I am absolutely encouraging the superintendent to defy the order,” he stated. “This could have very, very serious consequences for all public school families.”

California Charter School Association President Jed Wallace said his association is only seeking what is lawful.

“We are asking only that the district follow the law, and that they not marginalize families who chose charter public schools for their kids,” he said. “Much as charter schools are partners with the district in working towards our common goal of ensuring all students in Los Angeles receive a high quality education, we hope to be partners in finding long-term facilities solutions, which comply with the law, to accommodate all public school students.”

Huff filed the appeal in the Second District Court of Appeals in downtown Los Angeles.

“There will be an automatic stay (to Green’s ruling),” he said.

Sandi Wise, who lives across the street from Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista, has witnessed the onslaught of charters that have been approved by the LAUSD board and what many see as the toll that they have taken on traditional schools.

“Charters are receiving more from LAUSD than from anywhere else in the country. I think Zimmer and the board definitely need to fight this,” said Wise, a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Education Committee.

“With school starting so early this year, it’s going to create chaos. Neighborhood schools, which are already suffering from major cutbacks are going to pay the price and students in those schools will be displaced,” she continued. “The classrooms that the charter school association are saying were not included in the formula for space offers are primarily special needs classrooms.”

Ann Wexler, a Westchester parent whose daughter attended what was then Westchester High School two years ago, has a different take on the lawsuit and LAUSD’s challenge to it.

“We need to remember that public money is used to support students in both traditional public schools as well as public charter schools. Charter schools that co-locate pay rent to the district, so this is ultimately a better use of public dollars than paying for a private space, since it returns money to the system,” noted Wexler, whose petition to open a charter middle school was recently approved by the Los Angeles County Office of Education after LAUSD rejected it.

“Thus, it is essential that public resources be used as efficiently as possible, especially with our ongoing budget crisis.”

Huff said LAUSD has talked with 31 of 36 charter operators that could potentially benefit from Green’s order and they declined to ask for more space this year. “We thought this was a good faith action by these charters,” he said.

Karen Wolfe, whose son attends Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey, said the ballot initiative has produced some benefits but its implementation merits a second look. “Prop. 39 provided for innovation in schools and helped get a lot of schools built,” she said. “But I think it needs refining, much like the parent trigger law was refined.

“The playing field needs to be leveled equally between charters and traditional schools.”

The “parent trigger” is part of a school reform law that provides parents of pupils in what some consider low-achieving or “failing” schools the ability to petition the school district to reform the institution where their child is or will be enrolled. In order to implement or pull the “parent trigger,” more than 50 percent of parents at the school must sign a petition requesting the change.

It was shrouded in controversy, with advocates of the law accusing the district and United Teachers Los Angeles of intimidating those seeking reform, and opponents charged that parent trigger proponents falsified signatures and misled parents about what they were signing.

The state Board of Education made changes and clarifications to the law last year.

Wexler thinks LAUSD officials can consider different strategies that would allow them to give traditional schools more space and uphold Prop. 39.

“LAUSD could also consider combining some campuses, especially at schools where enrollments have dropped. Some campuses were built for student bodies nearly twice as large as what they currently have. This is inefficient and a waste of the public’s money and resources,” she asserted. “Combining smaller traditional district schools onto one campus would enable them to have more resources, including extra administrative support, in addition to extra non-classroom space.”

Zimmer claimed schools in District 4, which he represents, could see many of their innovative programs eviscerated by Green’s order.

“If you take away a parent center at Grand View (Boulevard Elementary School in Mar Vista) or intervention rooms at Westminster (Avenue Elementary School in Venice) or a special education room, it could have very serious consequences,” he said.

Wexler, whose proposed charter is tentatively called Westchester Secondary Charter, said the aforementioned rooms were once used for other purposes and charters might be able to use them in that manner.

“At some LAUSD campuses, rooms that are currently being used as parent centers, reading labs, etc., were at one time being used as classrooms, until drops in enrollment emptied those rooms,” she said. “Thus, a charter colocation might just be reclaiming some of that space for its original purpose.”

Wise said there could be other consequences for certain students in traditional schools where charters have been accused of not making them a priority in their educational agendas.

“Unfortunately, charter schools have largely neglected these special needs students and so they go to their neighborhood schools for help. If those classrooms are given away to charter schools, they will lose that necessary space,” she said. “In addition to that, the charters will end up with less students per class while the neighborhood school ends up with more students per class and the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows even further.”

Zimmer said the ruling, combined with what many traditional school advocates believe is a giveaway of neighborhood schools to charters, could begin to create a “two-tier system” for students.

Wolfe agrees, and she takes issue with the notion that implementing Prop. 39 is part of a narrative around school choice, a mantra to which many charter proponents subscribe.

“Everybody can advocate for choice,” said Wolfe. “But (the charter association’s legal action) is not about choice… it’s about taking classrooms away from neighborhood students.”

Green Dot Public Schools, which shares classroom space with Cowan Elementary School in Westchester, referred comments on the appeal to the state charter association.

Huff said it was imperative that the district attempt to halt the court order now instead of waiting.

“If we have to deploy (offering charters more space) next year, the results will be devastating,” he predicted.