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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: Charter House of Cards | 09-09-2016
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Commentary by Ken Pfalzgraf
| Friday, Sep 9, 2016

KenPfalzgraf2016In my last commentary (see footnote 1), I expressed concerns over the long-term fiscal health of the Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District, given its dependence on funds coming from the system of charters the district sponsored as a means of recovering from near insolvency two years ago.

My suggestion to focus inward as a means of decreasing the school district’s exposure to the increasing legislative, fiscal and legal pressure we are now seeing drew personal criticism from the school board president, who spanked me with half-truths while portraying the district as the Booker T. Washington of the modern charter movement (2).

As a candidate for the Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District board, I believe I will complement the current board by providing transparent, evidence-based representation for the voters. Using that criterion, let’s have a closer look at the president’s rebuttal:

Is the school district’s direction transparent?

* The “5 Year Plan” – Prior to this recently developed plan, Acton-Agua Dulce constituents didn’t have much to go on regarding the school district’s direction. Since the marching orders for the head executive are a pretty good indicator of an organization’s path, I asked for the superintendent’s contract. Since annual goals for the superintendent were to be an amendment to the contract, I asked for the annual goals, too.

Three times I declared my rights to see the contract and amended goals. Three times I was denied by contracted attorneys, paid for with funds intended to educate students. My struggle is memorialized here (3).

Fast-forward: I ended up making my request to the regulatory agency that monitors superintendent contracts locally – the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE). Once LACOE was able to get the school district to file the annual contract amendments, LACOE gave me the goals without a hitch.

The documents I received included the email exchanges between the school district and LACOE regarding the superintendent’s contract goals, showing that the school district was about as cooperative with the regulatory agency it was with me. Why did the school district not file the complete contract, with the goals, annually, with LACOE? Did the goals not exist when I asked for them? Were the goals withheld from me illegally? Or did the school district finally make up the goals after the fact when LACOE put the pressure on? Want to see what I saw? Fill out this form and send it to LACOE (4).

* Charter approval process – I attended an Acton-Agua Dulce school board meeting earlier this year where a “public hearing” was being held for a material revision for one of the district’s numerous charters. During public comment, I asked to see a copy of exactly what the revisions were. I was not provided a copy. Instead, I was told the revisions would be posted on the school district’s website the next morning. The board voted to approve the revisions, without the document being made available to the public.

When the material revisions were published on the district’s website the next week, I expected to find a letterhead with the charter school name and a red-line of the specific changes to the charter agreement. Instead, I found a document that had the name of a former Acton-Agua Dulce school district employee at the top of the document (5).

Over the course of a few years, this former employee had been promoted from site principal to director of education – a position that included vetting of charter petitions at the time. So now, this same person is representing the interests of one of the charters they most likely had a part in vetting originally as a school district employee to their former direct supervisor and board?

On Page 1 of this “material revision,” we find a touching story of a drug dealer who, after stabbing another student at school, made a miraculous turnaround with grandma joining the PTA and all. Does anyone besides me see a problem with not providing documents to the public before approving a charter laden with potential legal liabilities to the sponsoring district – i.e., some people sue people when their kid gets stabbed at school by a drug dealer, just sayin’ – using a material revision “public hearing” method that seems to defy conflict of interest boundaries?

Why wasn’t the material revision provided to the public prior to the board’s approval?

Are the school board president’s rebuttal statements evidence-based?

* The board president stated: “As of today, the legal issue has been legally resolved, since the district ultimately prevailed in the courts at both the trial and appellate level.”

Actually, court documents show that the Acton-Agua Dulce district did not prevail in Newhall vs. AADUSD (6). I was personally in the courtroom for the hearings and final ruling. The more accurate representation is that the Newhall School District prevailed in the Superior Court, then appealed a decision in which it was ruled the prevailing party in hopes the judge would prompt an action beyond making Acton-Agua Dulce redo an improper initial petition process. In other words, Newhall decided not to add onto the $300,000 in legal fees it had already spent.

In fact, the briefs have just been filed for a hearing that will determine if the Acton-Agua Dulce district will be responsible for legal fees for the case the board president referenced in his rebuttal. A mirroring set of circumstances in San Diego County resulted in the judge ordering the charter closed. Competing legal decisions make this issue far from resolved statewide.

* Two years ago, the Acton-Agua Dulce district superintendent struggled to answer basic questions about his district during an Assembly Education Committee hearing on charter school law in California. While not sure on how many teachers were in the district or how much was being made off of the charters the district sponsored, the superintendent was sure the district would recover from being negatively certified without income from the charters (7). See the entire hearing here (8). Now, two years later, the board president references a clear dependence upon charter funding in nearly each of the bullet-pointed program enhancements he lists.

Question is: Could the Acton-Agua Dulce district maintain the program enhancements the board president touts without income from the charters?

Despite the board president’s statement that “It has become a complicated political issue on a number of levels that seem to have perplexed the Legislature – and this dynamic does not lend itself to a simplified black-and-white issue that Pfalzgraf would have the reader believe,” the evidence shows that Acton-Agua Dulce is being ostracized and targeted by the greater legislative and educational communities for its charter authorizing practices, regardless of whether they are legal.

* Senate Bill 739 is on its way to the governor. Meant to amend California’s Charter School Act, partisan politics denuded the bill of nearly every proposed modification other than one that would directly affect the Acton-Agua Dulce district – that being, it would be illegal for a school district that has been negatively certified to sponsor charter schools (9).

During the hearing, Acton-Agua Dulce was called out, by name, and openly criticized for its charter authorization practices.

If it were two years ago, we wouldn’t be having this banter, as Acton-Agua Dulce would not have been able to fuel its financial recovery by sponsoring charters. There would be no board to run for, and the district would have been assigned a receivership superintendent.

* Acton-Agua Dulce’s chartering processes are being scrutinized by the state auditor. During the joint legislative audit committee hearing, Acton-Agua Dulce was openly named numerous times as a cause for a closer look at out-of-boundary charter authorizing processes (10). At time mark 43:35 in this video (footnote 10), California Charter School Association lobbyist Rand Martin is heard to distance his organization from Acton-Agua Dulce by name. The scope of the audit (11) is far beyond what the board president describes in his rebuttal. Finally, the final vote approving the audit was not as close as the board president would have you believe (12).

* Where was the Acton-Agua Dulce representative at these hearings? Don’t waste your message on me; go to Sacramento and shout it from the floor of the Legislature.

Let’s not be naive. Is any one of the concerns I’ve presented likely to bring down the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District overnight? No, but at the same time, isn’t it odd that two senators who represent districts where Acton-Agua Dulce has opened out-of-district boundary charters have successfully worked to target Acton-Agua Dulce with legislation and audits, while the California Charter School Association works to distance itself from Acton-Agua Dulce’s practices?

The state auditor’s look at the ALA (Assurance Learning Academy charter school) is nothing more than a means to pry open the books to Acton-Agua Dulce’s entire charter school system. What the board president characterizes as “the district as operating on the ‘cutting edge’ of educational practice,” I characterize as trying to cross the freeway with a blindfold on while every car is intent on hitting you.

Are we missing the fact that every dollar spent on defending or attacking the Acton-Agua Dulce district’s charter practices in court or the Legislature by lawyers, lobbyists or paid employees flying, driving, lodging or eating is a dollar a student somewhere doesn’t receive in the support of their education? Is that what you voted for?

I’ll say it again: Given the legislative, legal and political climate, I think we need to find ways to reduce Acton-Agua Dulce’s future dependence on income from charters. As one board member with one vote, I’d be asking to see what our superintendent can do to develop that idea. That’s what superintendents do.

In case you didn’t catch it, the Acton-Agua Dulce board president doesn’t want me as a peer. Regardless of his sentiments, expect that I will define my position on things for the voters ahead of the election. That’s what candidates do. If you don’t like what I stand for, there are two other candidates to choose from. But if I don’t join the eminence front on every issue, that doesn’t mean I’m judging current or past board members for the decisions they’ve made to keep the district up and running.

At the same time, don’t expect me to take on any tattoos of the past. I have enough of my own already.

 

Ken Pfalzgraf is a candidate for the Acton Agua Dulce Union School District governing board.

 

Footnotes:
1. http://scvnews.com/2016/08/22/charter-judgment-day-commentary-by-ken-pfalzgraf/

2. http://scvnews.com/2016/08/30/chartering-a-way-forward-commentary-by-mark-distaso/

3. http://scvnews.com/2015/04/13/attorneys-2-citizen-0-commentary-by-ken-pfalzgraf/

4. https://www.dropbox.com/s/qo77m81i7e9xo2g/footnote%204%20AADUSD%20contract%20request%20to%20LACOE.docx?dl=0

5. https://www.dropbox.com/s/0ziqq2ms01guzfi/footnote%205%20CCCS%20material%20revision.pdf?dl=0

6. https://www.dropbox.com/s/jt709ql8ox7z43l/footnote%206%20Newhall%20v%20AADUSD.pdf?dl=0

7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-gO5rrElE4&feature=youtu.be

8. http://scvtv.com/2015/03/04/raw-video-assembly-education-committee-hearing-on-charter-school-law-abuses-focus-on-aadusd-6-25-2014/

9. http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160SB739

10. http://assembly.ca.gov/vod/20160810_0930_126Aud

11. https://www.dropbox.com/s/bsif2ribhvtzt6f/footnote%2011%20Charter%20audit%20methodology.pdf?dl=0

12. https://www.dropbox.com/s/gnwrdacrqaxdp0d/footnote%2012%20JLAC%20final%20vote%202016%20141.pdf?dl=0

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10 Comments

  1. Update: Pressure pays off. Was handed the superintendent’s goals for the next two years last night at the AADUSD board meeting. No year later, no attorneys, no LACOE, no record requests. See, it’s not that hard to be transparent is it? With no editorials to write this weekend I guess I’ll get to work on my messy yard.

    https://www.dropbox.com/s/6h5r5l7cw0rivj2/16%2017.pdf?dl=0

  2. Jack Gratrix says:

    you are probably right, but our liberal legislators don’t care. they only care where the next dollar is coming and how much power they have.

  3. Tracy Costan says:

    You’ll be given a chance to define your position on things for the voters as you stated in your article in upcoming question & answer forums the Acton/Agua Dulce Communities will hopefully be having in the upcoming weeks. The current school board has provided the community with a choice in schools, and appears to be financially solvent. The Acton schools are equipped with modern technology,smaller class sizes as well as AP and vocational classes in the jr high and high school. This district was in trouble a couple of years back and this school board–in particular President Mark Distaso pulled it together with a viable plan and solutions that are in place today. I say ” THANK YOU” !!

  4. jim says:

    Ken, as a maverick myself, I wish you the best of luck. SCVNews is not the only source for info on the issue of run-a-away Charter School shenanigans. I have friends with children in that school “system”, and they are not happy.

    I can only hope that the reasoning majority of parents in your area will pay attention, search for and learn the details before they vote. Otherwise, they will be stuck with something that could ruin their children’s education. And doesn’t everyone believe that their children’s education is the foundation of their future?

  5. Ken Pfalzgraf says:

    There will be all kinds of angles put on this. For example, if someone credits the quick financial recovery of the district to the sitting board president, someone else might remind you that the same person has been on the board for 10 years and that the district being near insolvent must have been their fault too (I.e. 10 – 2 = 8), while another would say that the downtown in the economy would be the real culprit. When you click the footnote links above, you’ll see that there have been transparency issues that make it unclear as to how going from near insolvency to having several million dollars in surplus in two years really happened. I knew that the first angle of attack on me as a candidate would be to paint me out as an enemy of the district, its students, teachers and the marked improvements that have come with the recent increase in cash flow. I’m not much of s believer in “the end justifies the means” especially if it’s unclear as to how the end will be maintained. What I’m saying is that anyone with a true interest in understanding the fiscal stability of the district should have unimpeded access to proof of that. I believe there was always a five year plan; we just get to see it this time. Request that info from LACOE by clicking link 4 above. I’ll bring a stack of the docs to the candidate forums for people who like paper. Smearing me won’t make the district’s fiscal dependence on the charters go away.

  6. elly s. says:

    I’m sure the ‘reasoning’ majority will vote responsibly because many of us don’t care for the ramblings of an incoherent kook! Your personal angry vendetta with the district is not in the community’s best interest!

  7. Ron G. says:

    Why are you posting articles in SCV vs. Acton/Agua Dulce where the voters that can vote in this election live? …. What is your plan? What are your solutions? You plan to sit on a board and see what the superintendent does?? Really? It’s the board’s duty to direct the will of the people–not your personal view—-and help come up with viable solutions and make sure the superintendent adheres to this.. If you’ve been attending so many meetings, you’d know that…

    • SCVNews.com says:

      Is your first question aimed at SCVNews? If so, the answer is that Acton and Agua Dulce are part of the Santa Clarita Valley (SCV).

      • Ron G. says:

        Yes…. Agua Dulce is part of SCV—Acton is considered AV and ONLY Acton and Agua Dulce can VOTE in Acton/Agua Dulce related Boards—ie; Town councils and AADUSD school board…………..

  8. sergio E. says:

    It never seizes to amaze me how certain ‘people’ seem to be in bed–so to speak– with local officials–in this case, their local school board–they don’t see the facts because their vision is clouded for any number of reasons–it is a fact that many are unhappy with the present school board and their 5 year plan is unclear and the choices for schools is more to help them out of their financial insolvency rather than for the kids–so do you still say ‘thank you’?

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