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LAUSD to fight judge's order on sharing classroom space with charters

Students leaving school on a bus.
Students leaving school on a bus.
Tami Abdollah / KPCC

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L.A. Unified has vowed to fight a judge’s order to comply with a state law that requires districts to share space equally among public school students, including those in charters, saying that it would bring “catastrophic” results, lopsided class sizes, and may force busing of students.

Advocates for charter schools say L.A. Unified is overreacting, and that the district is wrong in how it determines class sizes; charter school students are legally entitled to more facilities than the district is providing.

The point of contention is the method used to determine what is a classroom, and whether that includes facilities used by special needs students for more intensive work — or computer labs, parent centers and even classrooms that are still on the drawing board. 

Last week, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry A. Green ordered L.A. Unified to comply with the law, setting a July 11 deadline for sending revised offers for facilities to the roughly 45 charter schools that officials say could be affected by the decision.

But calling the order impossible, district officials have promised to fight the ruling, saying that it would require L.A. Unified to displace students from their neighborhood schools, forcing them to be bused elsewhere, and would dramatically skew class-size ratios in favor of charter students.

Under the order, the ratio of elementary school students to class size would be 24 to 1 on the district side of the school but 15 to 1 on the charter school side, said LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy. Facilities such as computer labs, parent centers and specially designated classrooms would have to be removed to create space for charter students, Deasy said.

"I want to be very, very clear, this is not possible to carry out," Deasy told the L.A. Unified school board at its meeting last Thursday.

Deasy said the district would have to start moving students "tomorrow" to comply with the order because the school year starts early, in mid-August.

"And I for one believe it is completely inappropriate and against everything this board and district has done to relieve overcrowding, to take a student from a neighborhood school and move that student to a non-neighborhood school," Deasy said.

The latest chapter in the legal battle for school space is centered around Proposition 39, a measure passed by voters in 2000 to ensure that space is shared equitably among public school students, including those in charters. The law requires districts to provide facilities to charter schools in the same ratio of classrooms to students as it would have if the students had remained in the district.

The legal briefs have spanned years and include a 2008 settlement agreement that the district is not following, according an argument filed in May by the California Charter Schools Association. 

Under Proposition 39, qualifying charter schools with, for example, at least 80 students living within a district’s boundaries can apply each year to that district to request facilities.

L.A. Unified currently applies a "norming ratio," or standard, to assign students to a classroom and offer facilities to charters. 

The ratio is no less than 24 students per classroom for grades K-3, 30.5 to 1 for grades 4-6, 28 to 1 for grades 7-8, and 30 to 1 for grades 9-12. The district argues that following this ratio when it allocates space to charters is in keeping with the "spirit and intent" of Proposition 39; all public school students receive the same space.

But Charter Schools Association officials say the district's actions are illegal and unfair.

"LAUSD's 'norming ratio' reflects many choices that LAUSD can make for itself, but not for charter schools," the association wrote in its brief.

"When LAUSD makes choices about how to spend money and about collective bargaining, those choices can result in LAUSD putting more students into the classrooms it uses — for reasons other than a lack of classrooms. LAUSD is free to use its funds as it sees fit and to use fewer classrooms than it has available, but its choices...cannot be imposed on charter schools."

In granting the motion, Judge Green agreed.

David Huff, an attorney who represents the district in the case, said the judge's order is "supremely unfair" and violates the "spirit and intent" of Proposition 39. He said the association is more concerned about legal technicalities than truly providing equal facilities or its students. Huff said this is made clear by the association's focus on "inventory" or on what is considered a classroom.

The association, in its brief, states that the law requires the district to count all classrooms "no matter how they are used or whether they are used."

But Huff said the district would then be required to count rooms such as those used by special needs students for more intensive work --  or computer labs and parent centers --  as classrooms. Huff said charter schools are allowed to share these facilities.

"We count what we actually provide to our students," Huff said, "because that's how we accommodate charter schools’ students as they would be accommodated if they otherwise attended their local neighborhood school."

The district is also being asked to count classrooms that are not yet constructed or may not open for years under the order, Huff said. Additionally, it must count classrooms that may have been filled by charter students as available space for this ratio, Huff said. "That's not fair because it's just not reality," Huff said.

But the association's officials argue that with declining enrollment and the district's multibillion-dollar voter-approved building program, there is more than enough space to comply with the law.

"I'm disappointed that the school district has reacted in the manner it has," said Ricardo Soto, the general counsel for the Charter Schools Association.

"The law requires [the district to] account for all the space at a school site and look at the total number of students served at that school site and make a comparable offer, an equitable offer, to charter schools based on that allocation," he said.

Soto said the association has offered to work with the district to implement the order over the next months. But school board President Monica Garcia said at last week's board meeting that implementing the order in time for the 2012-13 school year will be "catastrophic and chaotic."

L.A. Unified's six other school board members joined Garcia and the superintendent in echoing their opposition to the judge's decision. School board member Steve Zimmer said the order would create "a two-tiered system" of education.

"The last time I checked, superintendent, there are federal civil rights implications to creating a two-tiered system at one public school," Zimmer said.

"Our message is a very simple one, a very basic one," said board member Marguerite LaMotte. "We were voted into this office to uphold the public school system of Los Angeles, and as far as I’m concerned, no district child is going to be made to move from his or her neighborhood school because of charters. OK? It’s that simple for me."

And board member Richard Vladovic said he felt betrayed by the Charter Schools Association's suit.

"I look at every other district in the state, the 1,100 districts in this state. I don't see the charter association going after Beverly Hills," Vladovic said. "I don't see them going after any other district, but the one that's helped them the most."

L.A. Unified, the nation's second-largest school district, is also the largest charter authorizer in the nation, according to district officials. The district has more than 210 charter schools serving more than 96,000 charter students or nearly 15 percent of the district's total student population in its area. These figures are one reason, Soto said, that the association has pushed this case.

"I would say all districts have their challenges in complying with Proposition 39," Soto said. "...There are school districts that do better than Los Angeles Unified, there are school districts that do much much worse than Los Angeles Unified."

Soto said that although the district had made strides in meeting Proposition 39’s requirements over the last few years, it has required continuous legal filings. He said the association hoped to work with the district outside the courtroom to comply with the law.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).