The Venice Neighborhood Council entered the much discussed debate surrounding the pending land lease deal at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista when it acted upon two resolutions that could influence the outcome of which school is selected for the elementary school site.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials are offering an unoccupied parcel of land at Walgrove to a charter operator in an effort to accommodate a dearth of facilities for charter schools as well as to reduce tensions created by colocations, a situation that polarized several Westside campuses this spring.
LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer, who represents Venice and Mar Vista in District 4, announced that the tentative date for the school district to release a request for proposal is Sept. 15. The RFP will serve as an official invitation for any charter operator to submit an application to be considered for the land lease.
The neighborhood council voted unanimously Aug. 16 to support a motion brought by Cindy Chambers that LAUSD consider a middle school at the Walgrove site, with a last minute addition by board member Amanda Seward that included “without excluding elementary or high schools.”
The board also declined to vote on a recommendation brought by Birgitte Hellsten, a parent from Ocean Charter School, that asked “while the council may support any charter co-occupying the Walgrove campus,” if a school is chosen, that the council endorse Ocean Charter’s continued colocation at Walgrove.
Colocation occurs when a traditional school and a charter share classrooms and common areas on a campus. It is an outgrowth of Proposition 39, a 2000 voter-approved initiative that mandates school districts to provide equal access to charter schools on community school campuses where there are unused or empty classrooms.
Fourth through eighth grades of the Waldorf-based school share space with the elementary school, and Ocean Charter’s kindergarten through third grades hold their classes at a Del Rey Christian church.
Board member Jake Kaufmann attempted to have the middle school motion postponed, but resident Karen Wolfe, whose daughter attends Ocean Charter, pointed out that delaying the vote would deprive Venice of adding its voice to a debate concerning where many of the neighborhood’s children could attend in the future.
“It’s really important that this get decided tonight because the motion seeks to influence the criteria that will be included in the request for proposal,” Wolfe told the council. “At (the September Venice council meeting) the request for proposal will already be out and you guys won’t have any say.”
The initial vote for Chambers’ resolution had five members – including Kaufman – abstaining, with six members voting in favor and five against the motion. But a second vote brought the total to 12-0, with three abstentions.
Proponents of both motions packed the Oakwood Recreation Center building to lobby the local council, which has recently become more involved in weighing in on education matters.
When she addressed the local council, Ocean Charter Executive Director Kristy Mack-Fett reiterated a reoccurring sentiment among her school’s supporters: their fears of an unfair process that could exclude them from competing for the land lease.
Mack-Fett emphasized her school’s test scores as well as the number of local families from the Venice/Mar Vista area that attend Ocean Charter as a reason why the council should consider backing Hellsten’s recommendation.
“We’ve been (on the Walgrove campus) for five years and we’d very much like to stay there,” she said.
Zimmer also addressed the board and stated again, as he has in prior interviews with The Argonaut, that the process for selecting a school will be open and impartial.
“There seems to be a preconclusion that (the selection process) will not be fair,” Zimmer told the council. “Our legal department is absolutely committed to a fair and transparent process.”
Mack-Fett added that Ocean Charter officials would like to work with the homeowners near Walgrove as well as parents at the elementary schools who have a variety of complaints about how parents at the charter school have conducted themselves since its arrival in 2006.
“We’d like to continue to be a part of this community and would like to work with our Walgrove partners on improving things and ideally developing a site that houses our whole school and also can be developed in collaboration with the shared vision of Walgrove,” she said.
Zimmer also addressed certain language that has been used by supporters of Ocean Charter, who frequently say they feel that they would be “evicted” from the Walgrove campus if they are not chosen for the land lease.
He noted that eviction is a legal term and Ocean Charter signed an agreement to colocate at Walgrove only through 2012.
Approximately 50 parents of Walgrove students signed a letter asking the Venice council to wait until the applications have been submitted before deciding to back a specific charter.
“We are the ones that will be most impacted,” said Claudia Trevisan, who lives near the elementary school and who signed the letter. “We want more middle school choices for our children, and as a Walgrove parent, I would like to see a school that does not compete with elementary school kids.”
In a letter to Ocean Charter parents, Hellsten thanked them for attending the meeting and discussed both resolutions.
“The motion that effectively sought to diminish (Ocean Charter’s) chance for winning the bid on Walgrove, was not passed either, at least not in its original language,” she wrote.
“The motion passed, but with the amendment that no school should be excluded from the (request for proposal) process. The task force views this as an important victory and Ocean Charter parents’ concern for a fairly written proposal was clearly noticed by the (Venice Neighborhood Council).”
Wolfe, a Venice resident whose son attended Ocean Charter but is now at Marina Del Rey Middle School in Del Rey, said she believed Ocean Charter’s recommendation was premature.
“After the request for proposal is released, if the board wants to recommend a school, they can,” she said.
Green Dot Public Schools has also indicated an interest in establishing a middle school at the Walgrove site.
Barbara Einstein, whose four daughters attended Walgrove, circulated a petition three years ago to gather signatures from local parents in an effort to establish a Green Dot middle school in the Venice/Mar Vista neighborhoods. A middle school at the Walgrove site would allow children who would be attending Green Dot’s sixth grade classes a few years from now to be able to return to a school closer to home, she said.
“I would really hope that those children would come back to Venice and be at a school in Venice,” said Einstein, who has three daughters enrolled in the Green Dot colocation at Cowan Avenue Elementary in Westchester.
Parents from Walgrove and Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice have signed at least one petition supporting a Green Dot middle school, demonstrating the desire to see a middle school alternative to Mark Twain Middle School.
Green Dot executives Marco Petruzzi and Douglas Weston were also in attendance at the council meeting.
Josh Campbell, whose two daughters attend Ocean Charter, thought the motion by Chambers would hamper his school’s chances to have a fair opportunity to bid on the site.
“We will have the same amount of students from (kindergarten) through middle school as a middle school that would be on that campus,” he said. “We just want to be part of the process, and saying it should be a middle school negates us from being a part of the process.
“I don’t think that you should support a school, but I don’t think that you should exclude a school either,” Campbell added.
Ocean Charter is in its last year of colocation with the elementary school. By state law, the bungalows that the school occupies at Walgrove must be removed, and several parents and members of its administration feel there is a sense of urgency to win the land lease bid or find a location where its elementary and middle schools can be on the same campus.