| | By Nuria Marquez Martinez
In the past five years, West Contra Costa Unified has seen eight new charter schools open their doors. By this fall, there will be 14 charter schools in the district, which includes Richmond and El Cerrito. But despite their growth, charter schools remain highly controversial in the district, with application hearings drawing protests at school board meetings.
In March, the Richmond City Council enacted a moratorium on building any new school sites in commercial zones. In addition, the school district filed a notice of violation against John Henry High School of Amethod schools, alleging that the school violated local, state, and federal education codes.
The moratorium runs until December and bans any school from building a new site in commercial and light-industrial zones. City Manager Bill Lindsay said in an interview that city officials had noticed an increase in charter schools using space in these zones, like Richmond's Marina Way, and that the council didn't feel like this land use was consistent with the city's general plan, which is oriented more toward neighborhood schools that are walkable for families.
"The moratorium was put into place so city council could further study the issues and come up with solutions," he said.
When the ordinance was presented at the Feb. 28 West Contra Costa Unified School District school board meeting, many parents and families of students of Amethod Public Schools, or AMPS, spoke passionately against the moratorium. Though Lindsay maintains that the moratorium is not aimed directly at charter schools, many of the families and Jorge Lopez, CEO of AMPS, saw it as a direct attack on their schools. AMPS also operates three charter schools in Oakland.
Currently, AMPS has an elementary school on the first floor of a building on Marina Way in Richmond. The school's original permit allowed it only to house students on the first floor, but Lopez said they had already presented a plan to expand to the second floor. They were told to wait until Chevron, which was occupying the third floor, moved out.
But now, Lopez said, the moratorium won't allow them to modify their permit to house another 120 students on the second floor. "They never met with us to ask how it would impact families," he said. "The moratorium is a blunt instrument that doesn't even allow for conversations to happen."
School board member Mister Phillips said he is also wary of how the ordinance will affect regular district schools. Under the California Education Code, all public school facilities must be shared among all public schools, including charters. This means that when a district approves a charter school application, that school can then request to use any empty school district building.
Phillips said that in the coming year, as charters that need space begin to apply for it, the district will have to give charter schools unused school sites, especially if they're not able to build in commercial zones. He said the district may be forced to also give charters space in an already existing school site. This practice is called co-location, and Phillips argues that it hurts district schools that are already struggling with low enrollment.
"Co-locating leads to inequality. Students look over the fence and see a different amount of resources and environments," he said. "It's not a well-thought-out idea."
The notice of violation against John Henry High School, a charter run by AMPS, states that it failed to employ properly credentialed teachers, provided inadequate special education services to students, implemented improper admissions policies and lottery procedures, and did not comply with the conditional use permit that allowed AMPS to establish a school in an area not zoned for a school.
In November 2017, Jeffrey Clinton, former site director of John Henry High, filed a complaint with the district alleging these violations. Clinton resigned on the same day that he filed the complaint. In the letter, Clinton alleged that a supervisor spoke to students in a "demeaning and degrading" manner. He also wrote of "unprofessional punitive behavior" at the school and a "hostile work environment." Clinton also alleged that AMPS violated various local, state, and federal education codes.
A month later, the district issued a letter of concern to AMPS officials, asking them to provide a response to the allegations. Throughout the following weeks, they sent in three responses. But school district officials say some of the documents in the responses were falsified and contradicted previous information.
Ed Sklar, the school district's attorney, and Linda Delgado, the district's charter school liaison, compiled a 900-page document with evidence of AMPS' violations. The documents included the names and credential numbers of all teachers at the high school, which the district used as evidence of improperly credentialed teachers.
For example, the bell schedule for the high school shows different levels of science classes throughout the day in three separate classes at the same time. Yet according to the Credential List provided by the charter school, only one teacher is properly credentialed to teach science. District staffers pointed to this disparity as one example of improper credentialing among teachers.
The notice of violation also includes allegations that the school was violating the lottery procedure, which involves picking students who have applied to the school at random for enrollment. The notice states that Amethod was giving preference to students with siblings at any Amethod school, which is in direct violation of the original charter petition.
In his official complaint, Clinton said he witnessed this firsthand. According to the notice, he stated that when a student chosen in the random lottery decided not to attend John Henry, AMPS directed staffers to choose someone on the waitlist from Richmond Charter Academy "regardless of their position on the waitlist."
This allegation was most concerning to board members when discussing the issue at the school board meeting. "A properly administered lottery is fundamental to the whole process," said board member Tom Panas at the meeting. "I want to have the right to look a little harder at the issue."
At the meeting, school board members said they were not looking to close the school but that they wanted to look into these issues and make sure they were resolved. "If they're not following the rules, we need to correct it," said Phillips.
Lopez said AMPS is meeting with the district and families of the school to provide all the necessary documents. "If there's holes in our program, I want to know," he said of the allegations. "We were working on it from the backend until we got derailed by the process of this individual who left the organization."
AMPS was recently denied a school site in Sacramento due to "numerous errors and inaccuracies throughout the petition," records show. The errors include references to outdated curriculum, conflicting information on enrollment and staffing among others, according to the meeting minutes of the March 20 Sacramento County Board of Education meeting.