STATE APPELLATE COURT LIMITS CHARTER SCHOOL CAMPUSES
Satellites can’t open outside authorizing districts, ruling states
BY MAUREEN MAGEE
In a decision that could change the landscape of charter schools, a California appellate court ruled Monday that charters cannot legally expand throughout their home county by opening satellite campuses outside the district that authorized them.
The decision is being celebrated as a victory for school districts up and down California that have lost students and state attendance funds when far-flung charters open “resource centers” in their boundaries without their approval or oversight.
Charter advocates called the ruling disappointing and confusing, one that will disrupt the education of more than 100,000 students unless the case is appealed to the CaliforniaSupreme Court. The 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a lower court decision in a lawsuit filed by the Anderson Union High School District in Redding claiming the Shasta Charter Academy illegally opened a resource center in its jurisdiction.
In that case, the lower court sided with the charter, which was authorized by the nearby Shasta Union High School District. That court said it was legal to operate a resource center in the neighboring Anderson district to give its independentstudy students who live there a chance to use computers, receive tutoring and work on assignments in a classroom setting.
The State Education Code permits independent-study charters to operate satellite campuses in their home district and in neighboring counties, as long as students don’t spend more than 80 percent of their time there. However, there is nothing in the law about whether a charter can operate
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FROM A1such satellite centers outside their home district andwithin their county.“The judgment is reversed,” the court said in itsruling. Ricardo Soto, general counsel for the California Charter Schools Association, called the ruling “extremely disappointing.”
“It’s going to have a really significant impact on tens of thousands of students and their families that depend on the charter schools that operate those resource centers,” Soto said.
Of California’s roughly 1,200 charter schools, more than 270 are “non-classroom based” programs that can operate resource centers. The California charter association is preparing to issue a summary of the ruling to help charters navigate their options.
A charter could, for example, petition a school district asking to convert a resourcecenter into a fullfledged charter school under the district’s jurisdiction.
“If districts claim oversight is the issue, here is their chance to (grant the charter) and provide the oversight,” Soto said. “I don’t believe oversight is the issue. I believe that school districts were just simply trying to eliminate competition within theirboundaries.”The state ruling comes amid escalating legal disputes and turf wars between districts and charters that have blitzed the region with satellite campuses.
The San Diego Unified, Grossmont and Sweetwater Union High School districts are embroiled in a lawsuit against the Julian Union Elementary School District and its Julian Charter School over resource centers that have cost those districts students and state attendance funds. What’s more, the districts have said they are unable ensure academic or financial oversightat the storefront centers they did not authorize.
“This makes it clear, charters cannot operate anywhere they want,” said Andra Donovan, general counsel for San Diego Unified. “This ruling fully supports our position.”
An estimated 25,000 students in San Diego County attend non-classroombased charter schools.
Such charters, which often offer a hybrid education that combines independent study with classroom instruction, are becoming increasingly popular locally and statewide. The arrangements offer flexibility to students who want an alternative to traditional schools, and big revenue to districts that authorize the charters and receive up to 3 percent of their revenue for oversight and other services.
More than 3,000 students attend the Julian and Diego Valley charter schools authorized by the Julian Union Elementary School District to operate satellite campuses throughout the county’s districts. Julian, which enrolls fewer than 400 localstudents within its district, received nearly $800,000 in revenue from the charters in the 2014-15 year, when its total revenue was $6.2 million.
Jennifer Cauzza, who runs the Julian Charter, said the school’s attorneys are reviewing the state ruling.
“I’m sure the opinion will be appealed to the Supreme Court level, and in the meantime we will continue doing what’s best for students and planning for the changes necessary to be legal and compliant and do the best job possible in educating the students in our school,” Cauzza said in an email. “I’m sure there will be a time period for compliance since it effects so many students throughout the state.”
The Redding resource center at the heart of the ruling will be forced to shut down immediately. The charter did not respond to questions about whether it would appeal the ruling.
“Every other resource center in this situation should be working toward complying with the ruling. It’s the law of the land now,” said Sarah Sutherland, the San Diego attorney whosefirm represents districts litigating charter lawsuits. “A district that has charter (resource centers) they didn’t authorize can now pursue this pretty easily.”
The ruling underscores a deep divide in California when it comes to charter school growth and interpretation of the 25-year-old California Charter School Act.
The appellate court decision is at odds with the state Board of Education’s July vote to allow a San Diegobased charter to open resource centers in neighboring districts within thecounty. San Diego Unified had long allowed its Audeo Charter School to operate resource centers in other districts but reversed its views and asked the organization to find a new authorizor. The charter submitted a petition to the Carlsbad Unified School District to establish its Audeo II charter, which was denied.
An appeal of that ruling was rejected by the San Diego County Office of Education. On July 12, Audeo formally complied with San Diego Unified’s request to eliminate resource centers from its charter after working with the district formonths on a new pact. Just two days later, the state Board of Education granted Audeo Charter School II an appeal, allowing it to operate the resource centers in Carlsbad, Escondido and San Marcos.
The state ruling was viewed as a victory for Audeo and charter school advocates. The decision was significant because the state Board of Education rejected the advice of the California Department of Education.
Educators across the country had been watching the Shasta case. Perhaps no one was more surprised at the attention than Tim Azevedo, superintendent of the Anderson district in Redding.
“I didn’t realize so many districts were watching us until recently,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to be a crusader, just trying to addressour own problems here.”
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