Los Angeles Unified School District Board Member Steve Zimmer moved recently to assuage the administration at Ocean Charter School that the process leading up to and concluding with the selection of a charter operator at a Westside school site will be fair and open.
Concerns that the decision to award a 2-3 acre parcel of unoccupied land at Walgrove Avenue Elementary School in Mar Vista will favor one charter over others has surfaced in recent conversations and emails with board members and parents at Ocean Charter, which shares part of the campus with Walgrove Elementary.
“This will be a public, transparent process. It was constructed that way intentionally,” Zimmer told The Argonaut in a telephone conversation from Washington, D.C. “No deal has been struck, no arrangement has been made with another charter partner and there is no effort to displace a certain school.”
Green Dot Public Schools, which has been seeking to build a middle school on the Westside for several years, has also indicated that it plans to petition the school district for the Walgrove site. The charter organization currently has a high school on the campus of Broadway Elementary School in Venice, Animo Venice High School.
Zimmer announced June 15 that LAUSD would be offering a land lease agreement with a charter school at Walgrove in an effort to reduce the amount of tension that colocations have caused on the Westside. In LAUSD District 4, which includes Mar Vista, there were more colocations this year than in any area of the school district.
A request for proposal will be made public and that will allow any charter operator to petition the district for the site.
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 space on traditional school campuses where classrooms are underutilized or vacant.
Lisa Acock, whose daughter is in the fourth grade at Ocean Charter, thinks the time period of one month between the issuance of the request for proposal and the deadline to reply for schools vying for the land lease seems hurried.
“I feel that the process was really rushed,” Acock, a Venice artist, said. “I’m unclear if this will truly be transparent.”
Parents at Ocean Charter tend to unequivocally back their school administration’s desire to remain on the Walgrove campus, where they have been since 2008. They also emphasize how many local families have children enrolled at the seven-year-old charter school.
“Ocean Charter School is a successful example of neighborhood parents organizing to provide an alternative choice in education that reflects the character of the local neighborhood,” said Mar Vista resident James Brennan, whose two daughters attend the charter school. “With 129 Venice/Mar Vista families at the school, Ocean Charter is attended largely by students in the immediate vicinity.”
Brennan said combining 252 K-3 students from its Del Rey location at a Christian church to the Walgrove campus, which houses grades five through seven, will eliminate traffic and congestion for parents forced to drive back-and-forth between the two campuses for student drop-offs and pickups.
“It will make walking/biking to school a more viable option for many neighborhood families – addressing a key sustainability goal,” Brennan, a proponent of sustainability, noted.
Families with children at the school also highlight its esoteric Waldorf curriculum, which is based on the philosophical dictates of the Austrian philosopher Fredric Steiner. It focuses on a humanistic approach to teaching and incorporates artistic and conceptual elements into the curriculum.
Zimmer said while the situation was not ideal for any school, the request for proposal allows any entity that wishes to apply to showcase what they believe to be their strong points to the district in order to be awarded the site.
“Let’s be honest; this is a competition,” he said. “The district’s goal is to find the absolute best match for the community and for (Walgrove Elementary).”
Charles Francis, a member of the Ocean Charter school board, said school officials have long sought to have all of their students in one campus, and the land lease offers them that opportunity.
“(Having the elementary and middle schools at one site) is also integral to the Waldorf curriculum,” said Francis, a former Venice resident who has a child at Ocean Charter. “And if we’re chosen, we’ll do what we can to limit our impact on the neighborhood.”
That has been one of the biggest points of contention between the charter school and homeowners on Walgrove Avenue and the surrounding streets of Maplewood Avenue and Appleton Way. Several neighbors have complained to the school and to LAUSD in community meetings that Ocean Charter students, its administration and parents have been less than cooperative regarding parking, leaving debris on the streets and neighborhoods, and have been unwilling to be collaborative with the elementary school.
“They have shown an utter lack of interest in what goes on at Walgrove until the lease was offered,” Laurie Hanson, a former Friends of Walgrove president, claimed at a Venice Neighborhood Council education committee meeting last month.
Ocean Charter has recently stepped up its public relations campaign to generate support for winning the land lease. Many parents have stated that their history at Walgrove should be considered.
“LAUSD has put our north campus site up for grabs for any charter school that’s interested. They will be issuing a request for proposal in the next week or so to interested schools and will be voting on who gets the site just days after those proposals are turned in,” Gary Adler, a parent of two Ocean Charter children, wrote in an email last month. “A small task force of motivated parents has been formed to unify us in our proposal and our community outreach.”
The request for proposal has not been sent out and LAUSD officials are uncertain when it will be released.
Zimmer pointed out that the land is owned by LAUSD and no school has a claim – unofficial or otherwise – to the parcel that will be leased, regardless of how long they have been on the campus.
“If there is any assumption in some folks’ minds that there is a proprietary right to (the Walgrove site), that is not grounded in anything factual,” the school board representative asserted.
Another factor that the administration is anxious about is the bungalows that Ocean Charter students use as classrooms will be removed after the 2011-12 academic year. In addition, they can only remain in a colocation situation at Walgrove until the summer of 2012, when its agreement expires.
Parents like Brennan are worried about what will happen to their children if Ocean Charter is not chosen for the land lease.
“If the school is evicted from the Walgrove campus and forced to relocate elsewhere, it risks becoming a commuter school – increasing its environmental impact and losing its deep connection to the neighborhood community,” he said.
Francis said the land lease discussion at the elementary school has reactivated its relationship with the Walgrove parents. “The fact that (the land at Walgrove) could be awarded to another charter is a frightening one, but we’re hoping that the process is open and fair,” he said.
Acock is dismayed that the land is being subjected to the bidding process with her child’s school’ s history at Walgrove.
“I’m frustrated that LAUSD has offered this one spot to many charters,” she lamented. “It feels like we’re being pitted against our neighbors and that’s unfortunate.”
Zimmer seemed puzzled that some at the charter school feel that they will not have the time or resources from where to draw expertise to craft a response to a land lease offer, noting that parents at the Ocean Charter include real estate attorneys and architects.
“I have not met a charter organization on the Westside that does not have a cadre of professional people in their midst,” he said.
He also appeared perplexed that there seems to be concern on Ocean Charter’s part of competing with another charter school for the unoccupied site. “Competition and choice are the gold standards (for charter schools),” he noted. “It’s a little bit ironic that we would be criticized because we’re creating a creative process.”
The best possible scenario would be for Green Dot and Ocean Charter to find sites on the Westside, said Francis, although he would prefer that his school were awarded the Walgrove site.
“I certainly hope that at the end of the day, both of these candidates can find a home,” he said.
Zimmer said he and LAUSD realize that colocations have inadvertently caused discord between traditional and charter schools, but he sees the current situation having an interesting new dimension.
“There is always going to be tension when there is a paucity of space. In this instance, the tension is between two charters,” he noted. “And that’s a new twist to the equation.”