Acton Agua Dulce School District Officials Look To Charter Choice, Part II
Ed. note: The Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District approved a charter school petition for an elementary school and a high school outside of its boundaries. This series of stories looks at what brought the district to that point, what district officials are doing about their problem and the response of parents, students and educators in our community. Here's a link to Part I of the series. Part II looks at the solution proposed by Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District officials to fix their money woes.
Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District Superintendent Brent Woodard shakes his head when he hears the accusation that the district’s Einstein Academy petitions are a money grab.
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“It’s not a model that generates money (for school districts),” Woodard said. “It’s just nonsense. It’s unfortunate that people have gotten that take.”
Educators on all sides of the charter school controversy say it’s not about the money, it’s about educational concerns.
However, for local school officials, there’s more than $6 million at stake, which could pay for a whole lot of educational programming.
Back in May, AADUSD governing board members took the unusual step of granting approval for a charter school within Castaic Union School District boundaries.
AADUSD officials OK’ed two separate charter petitions -- one for a K-6 and another for a high school site. There was no mention of an address on the approved petitions.
A school district is allowed to charter a location outside of its boundaries if it establishes that there is no suitable site within the boundaries, and they notify the applicable district, according to the state's Education Code. There was no mention of an address on the petition approved by AADUSD board members.
Castaic Union School District Superintendent Jim Gibson represents the school district that oversees the boundaries for the kindergarten through sixth grade school that AADUSD officials chartered.
Gibson has filed a protest with the Los Angeles County Office of Education regarding the fact that Einstein officials never notified him that a school would be put in at 25300 Rye Canyon Road.
Jeffrey Shapiro, executive director for the Albert Einstein Academy for the Letters, Arts and Sciences, notified Saugus Union School District officials that Einstein would be putting a site within their boundaries May 15, one day before AADUSD approved the Rye Canyon Road site in CUSD boundaries.
AADUSD board member Ed Porter said their board thought they were putting the school within Saugus Union boundaries when they took the vote; however, he was more concerned with addressing student need in their area.
While the school district would only receive 3 percent of the student enrollment dollars for Einstein Academy’s independent charter school at the Rye Canyon site, an amount not to exceed $50,000 for each of the sites, according to the charter petition, the real lure for AADUSD officials was the dependent charter-school plan, Porter said.
The district has seen a steady decline over the last 10 years, he said.
“Basically, what’s happened to our district is that we’ve gone from 2,600 (students), down to 1,188 for the 2013-14 school year,” Porter said, explaining the need for the Einstein draw.
“(The AADUSD) gets paid about 6,680 per student -- every student we lose, we’re losing that much money,” he added.
Furthermore, based on their research, district officials were missing out on about 1,000 students who live within district boundaries, Porter said.
“There’s about 2,200 kids locally, and we’re only getting about, what, 1,200 of those kids,” Porter said.
The district hired public relations consultant Dorothy Daniels to conduct research on the issue and find out “why our kids are not going here,” Porter said.
“A lot of it had to do with sports programs, and the arts,” Porter said. “(Parents) didn’t feel we were offering the overall educational opportunities they could get in Santa Clarita schools and at private schools.
“Santa Clarita understands that, that’s why they’re gearing their advertising to that,” Porter said, referencing a full-page ad that Santa Clarita Valley school districts placed in the Acton Agua Dulce Country Journal.
Porter said the Einstein plan was to draw some of those children they’d lost back to their district.
“Our superintendent set about finding options for how we could increase enrollment,” Porter said. “He approached Shapiro.”
Shortly after Einstein Academy received a second rejection from the Saugus Union School District, Woodard began talks with Einstein about the possibility of an Acton or Agua Dulce location.
Talks broke down shortly thereafter over a dispute about the agreement that would accompany the charter.
However, they began again in earnest in April, after a third rejection from Saugus Union officials. A fourth rejection would eventually follow, but at that point, Einstein and Agua Dulce had worked out a plan.
Essentially, the AADUSD board members agreed to grant charter school approval for two independent sites -- one in the Santa Clarita Valley, the Rye Canyon site, and one in the San Fernando Valley.
In exchange, Einstein Academy would introduce their school’s programming at AADUSD sites, in the following order: the Agua Dulce School, an elementary (K-5); Meadowlark School, an elementary (K-5); High Desert School, a middle school for sixth- to eighth-graders; and Vasquez High, a ninth- to 12th-grade site.
“We wanted to offer that (Einstein Academy) program in our district and we wanted to offer that to kids in our district to stay loyal to where they live,” Porter said.
The school district would receive a greater portion of funding for the programs at those locations, Porter said, and it would be a new draw for local parents.
The details haven’t been worked out on the specifics of funding, and Shapiro said it was too early to discuss the details.
“I expect this to become a model for schools and school districts to work collaboratively in other places, as well,” Shapiro said.
The Thousand Oaks site has been challenged by city officials in that area over questions about construction permits.
Santa Clarita recently issued a stop-work order for the construction at the Rye Canyon Road site over similar concerns, however Einstein officials still list a start date of Sept. 9 on the school's website. Santa Clarita officials have said the next Planning Commission meeting scheduled for the city is Sept. 17.
Ultimately, the Acton-Agua Dulce is in dire need of a draw, Porter said, mentioning the “dilapidated” Vasquez High site, and a failed five-year effort to improve that location with school bonds that started in 2008.
AADUSD officials spent years campaigning and working on a plan to revamp Vasquez, only to find out earlier this year that even the most modest option parents would approve was out of reach financially for the cash-strapped district.
It was about the bottom line for Porter, which he said was helping his constituents.
“If (Santa Clarita Valley) parents are willing to drive out to Thousand Oaks for his program, our thinking is, hopefully, that some of those parents will bring their kids here,” Porter said. “If in any way (Shapiro) doesn’t comply with that (agreement to build dependent charter schools), then our sponsorship of his independent charter school is going to be null and void.”
Part I looks at the problems facing the Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District that prompted school officials to look at the charter school option.
Part III, which will run next Wednesday, will look at the reaction of the local community to what Acton Agua Dulce Unified School District officials have done to solve their problem.
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