Amid unprecedented school upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Los Angeles teacher’s union fight against campus-sharing agreements between charter and district schools stayed firmly on course to the outcry of charter advocates.
The ongoing pressure campaign was on display in a socially-distanced demonstration at Shirley Elementary in Reseda on Tuesday morning, April 14, as teachers in masks stood six feet apart and protested a plan to open a new privately operated public school on their campus this Fall.
UTLA President Alex-Caputo Pearl said in a weekly video update Monday that L.A. Unified told charter schools it cannot guarantee space will be given to charter schools this year, declaring it a “temporary victory.”
“We have very vigorous campaigns going right now against charter co-location, which would be not only the usual privatization problem but layered on top of that a health and safety problem under the current circumstances,” he said, also lamenting the lack of availability for public comment amid cancelled school board meetings.
In recent weeks, UTLA leaders have sought to reframe their longstanding opposition to charter co-location in terms of public health and called for a moratorium on new charter approvals as the union successfully bargained with L.A. Unified on terms of distance learning.
There is not enough time to safely implement the necessary public health standards for new co-location sites or new charter approvals, Caputo-Pearl argued in a March 26 letter to Superintendent Austin Beutner.
An LAUSD spokesperson said Tuesday that the district “remains committed to fulfilling its legal obligations. These are extraordinary times that will continue to require collective effort and flexibility to manage through the circumstances for the well-being of all.”
Amid the virus outbreak, district campuses closed on March 13 and will remain closed through remote summer school sessions, Beutner said Monday.
Citizens of the World Charter, a non-profit organization operating a small cluster of schools in L.A. and Kansas City, is one of the 17 charter schools slated to partake in new co-location agreements in the 2020-21 school year.
CWC is on track to open a new West Valley campus in Fall 2020 after signing a co-location agreement with L.A. Unified in January. The school will move into 11 Shirley Elementary classrooms currently used as art, music, robotics and other additional space.
Under state law, school districts are required to make classroom and non-classroom facilities available to public charter schools serving students who reside in L.A. Unified boundaries. There are currently 56 co-located schools in the district.
LAUSD has an abundance of campus space amid declining enrollment, according to an independent cost-savings report commissioned by Superintendent Austin Beutner last year. Over 200 district schools have more than 15% excess capacity, the report found.
At the Tuesday protest, Shirley Elementary teachers and supportive parents expressed outrage that Citizens of the World charter was allegedly installing technology systems as their students lacked home wifi connection.
“Colocation?” signs read as some two dozen protesters spread out on the sidewalk or on cars driving by. “Not in the middle of a pandemic.”
A spokesman for the California Charter Schools Association called the protesters hypocritical considering they are outside during stay-at-home orders, and called the union’s tactics “Trumpian.”
“I thought they had taken a backseat to this because of the pandemic but today they’re not only continuing with their tactics of division, they’re doing so in violation of stay-at-home orders that law enforcement, the mayor and governor are implementing,” said Luis Vizcaino. “They are putting themselves and our shared community at risk with their stunts.”
LAUSD is home to 277 charter schools, serving more almost 140,000 K-12 students. The vast majority are run independently; 53 are considered affiliated and keep close ties to the district.
In co-location arrangements, charter schools pay a pro-rata share for use of district space but at a significantly lower cost than the private market. Last year, LAUSD demanded payment from charter schools including CWC for failing to enroll enough students proportionate to the classroom space they were allotted.
Citizens of the World L.A. Executive Director Mark Kleger-Heine did not immediately respond to request for comment.
In early March, an LAUSD spokesperson said CWC does not currently owe the district any money but the group is engaged in a formal dispute resolution process with the district regarding over-allocated space reimbursements.
The organization is currently preparing the Shirley Elementary site for co-location with the help of administrators, said the district. While the school originally planned to make room for an average daily attendance of 219 students in grades TK/Kindergarten and First Grade, an “alternative” agreement brought the number down to 200.
Halting new campus sharing agreements would likely prove difficult for charter operators counting on using district space. Starting in July, local school boards will have more authority to reject new charter petitions under state law.