By Susan Luzzaro
Community advocate Maty Adato asked the Sweetwater Union High School board a provocative charter school question at the June 22 board meeting. Trustees were deliberating on the renewal of facility contracts for Stephen Hawking charters I & II. The charters are for grades K-6 and Adato wanted to know if Sweetwater, a 7 -12 district, must give up unused classroom space to a K-6 charter.
Community members were particularly concerned about Sweetwater’s charters because they appeared to be the work of a paid consultant under former superintendent Ed Brand, rather than charters arising from parent choice.
The Hawking I charter is partially located at the Sweetwater’s former Regional Occupational Center and partially in Castle Park Middle School. Hawking II is co-located on the Southwest Middle School campus. This is the third year of existence for Hawking I; it will be the second year for Hawking II.
Proposition 39 was passed in 2000 which allows charter schools to occupy unused classroom space. At the June 22 meeting, Ramon Leyva, Director of State and Federal Programs, acknowledged, “This is the first time they [Hawking charters] have gone through a formal Prop 39 request. Previously the district simply gave the facilities to the charters.”
Trustee Paula Hall queried Levya about space. What happens, she asked, if the charter schools want more of our classroom space?
Leyva said the outlook for giving the charters additional space in 2016-17 is “problematic.” He said, “The bleeding has stopped at Southwest Middle and Castle Park Middle.” In other words, students who had been attending other schools are returning to their neighborhood schools. According to Leyva, at one time Southwest Middle had been down to 100 students and now is back up to 700. Castle Park Middle also increased enrollment up to 900.
Former interim superintendent Phil Stover weighed in on trustee Hall’s question about space for the district’s students. He said, “Proposition 39 starts new every year. Charters are only given a one-year term. A charter school has no inherent right be at the same site year, after year, after year.”
“In November they [charters} make a request. On December 1 we [the district] get back to them and say we have room or we don’t… We are under no obligation to give them the same site if there is no available space, this is a constant moving process.”
Karen Janney, who was not formally the superintendent at the June 22 meeting, spoke at the podium and expanded on Adato’s initial question about whether the district needed to grant space to K-6 students.
Janney pointed out that staff’s own agenda analysis said “None of the Charter Schools’ students qualify as “in-district students” because both [charter] schools currently offer a program to K-6 students only.” In-district students are students who would have attended a district school if the charter were not in place Janney suggested the board seek more clarity.
Stover then stated, “That’s where current litigation is ongoing because there’s more and more of these secondary and elementary school situations are turning up.”
Leyva said the fact that we are a 7-12 and they are a K-6 “does complicate the issue.” Leyva says he has been working with counsel on these questions and that the district was using Proposition 39 as “a guide.”
Stover then asked, “What district chartered these [Hawking charter] schools?”
Several trustees replied, “We did.”
Stover said, “Bring on the lawyers; that makes it even more complicated.”
Trustees then approved the Hawking charter schools for one year.
When Superintendent Janney was contacted on July 2, she wrote “if the board wants to continue to research the quest of “in-district” students with our general counsel, I will certainly follow their direction.”