Education Matters: SOUL given two years

After covering education for the past 20 years, I thought nothing would surprise me any more. Then along came the Feb. 6 San Diego County Board of Education meeting.

With depressing regularity, education leaders continue to circumvent what’s best for students and create impossible barriers for schools that show promise.

The renewal process for the School of Universal Learning (SOUL) Charter School is the latest example.

Rather than asking for a five-year renewal, in January SOUL requested from the San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) a three-year extension to its previously granted two-year authorization.

This was based on what SOUL leaders thought was agreed upon previously in discussions with the county.

However, they were blind-sided when SDCOE staff came back in February with an offer of only two years – and conditional approval at that. This resolution ultimately passed.

To add insult to injury, one of the conditions is that SOUL must remain at its current location, at the Solana Beach Boys & Girls Club, for the 2019-2020 school year.

Facilities are a major hurdle for charter schools, not made easier by resistant school districts that erect barriers to access facilities.

Because SOUL is located within the boundaries of the San Dieguito Union High School District, SOUL submitted a formal request last fall to SDUHSD for facilities, as is its right under Proposition 39.

An Intent to Enroll list of 109 in-district students, many of whom are already enrolled at SOUL, was provided by SOUL to SDUHSD for the 2019-2020 school year for grades 7-11.

SOUL projects 165 students for next school year (109 from within San Dieguito boundaries and 56 from outside the district’s boundaries), and says its current location cannot easily accommodate such a large number.

School districts are only required to grant the request if enrollment numbers of district students into the charter school meet a certain level.

After contacting families on the Intent to Enroll list, SDUHSD came up with a projected enrollment of 76.8 students from within the district, just below the 80 needed. So the request was denied.

SOUL Executive Director Marisa Fogelman disputed the district’s number, saying in a Dec. 27, 2018 letter to SDUHSD Supt. Robert Haley, “SOUL disagrees with the methods by which the district arrived at its counter-projection.”

Numerous legal references were provided to support the charter school’s claims, including this one: “The district should be advised that courts are growing intolerant of intentional efforts by school districts to avoid compliance with Proposition 39 using artificial ‘lowball’ counter-projections.”

SDUHSD responded to Fogelman’s Dec. 27 letter with a second denial. San Dieguito’s Feb. 1 letter read in part, “SOUL Charter School does not have an authorized charter beyond June 30, 2019, therefore we are unable to offer Proposition 39 facilities at this time.”

I asked Haley why the district went to the trouble of calling so many parents on the Intent to Enroll list in November if the district followed up with a later letter saying it couldn’t offer facilities because the charter had not yet been renewed. After all, the charter hadn’t been renewed in November either.

“We received the request for facilities under Prop. 39 prior to November 1 as required, but at that time we had no way of knowing when or if SOUL would receive a new charter or an extension,” Haley wrote in an email. “Therefore, to meet the statutory deadlines, we did our analysis.”

“Our next deadline was to respond by Feb. 1,” he said, “but as of that date SOUL had yet to garner either an extension or renewal” – saying to offer space before renewal “would be premature.”

SDUHSD’s letter did state that SOUL could contact the district for “further consideration” if the school’s charter is renewed.

Now that SOUL has been conditionally approved for two years, I asked Haley if that changes his response.

“We will see if they pursue a request and answer accordingly,” he said.

Any facility occupied by the charter school would be paid rent at fair market value.

Kid are learning

The facilities condition also would appear to prohibit SOUL from seeking other venues that might be more suited to support a large enrollment in an optimal educational environment.

Confusingly, SDCOE’s Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Michael Simonson said at the Feb. county board meeting that it was not necessary for the school to remain at its present location but must be at a single location.

Although the language in the resolution is quite specific, that SOUL must remain at the Boys & Girls Club for the 2019-2020 school year – this is not necessarily the case?

Noting that flexibility exists for deadlines and locations, Music Watson, SDCOE’s chief communications officer, said, “If SOUL finds a different location that is fiscally and instructionally viable, we would work with them.”

Of SOUL’s current enrollment of 96 students, 63 reside within SDUHSD boundaries – about 66 percent. Other students come from Carlsbad, La Jolla, La Mesa, Mira Mesa, San Marcos, Poway, Escondido, Rancho Santa Fe and Oceanside.

SDCOE board members had the option of modifying the resolution presented to them, including eliminating the site restriction, but chose not to.

SDCOE board member Rick Shea, representing District 5 which encompasses the San Dieguito district and the coastal communities from Del Mar north and inland to Fallbrook, had nothing to say during the presentation.

Paulette Donnellon, who is currently board president, said SOUL has “visions of being one of the best charter schools in the state.”

The kids, she said, “are learning and looking forward to going to school each Monday.”

She said three years make more sense than two years. But when fellow board member Mark Powell made a motion for a three-year extension and Donnellon asked for a second, she couldn’t get one.

After that, a motion to accept staff’s recommendation, two years with conditional approval, passed unanimously – even after SOUL leaders made it clear they would not accept conditional approval.

Before the vote, speakers implored the county board not to support the two-year resolution.

Tom Nichols from the Charter School Management Corporation said the two-year extension doesn’t provide the certainty families need.

Wendy Kaveney, SOUL’s director of operations, told the board that the two-year extension “doesn’t set us up for success.”

SOUL’s Fogelman said she has spent two decades designing a program like SOUL.

“I’ve sacrificed everything to prove to you we could do it,” she said. “We did our part. We’ve explained why this [the two-year extension] can’t work for our families.”

She said the programs SOUL offers and the achievements the school has accomplished in 14 months are “sound, thorough and descriptive.”

“You have the opportunity to do the right thing which is to grant SOUL a three-year extension,” she said, to no avail.

Approved for two years

Miles Durfee, California Charter Schools Association’s interim senior vice president for Regional Advocacy, said in 2016 that there is no such option as conditional approval.

He explained the difference between conditional approval and approval with conditions, saying the terms are used interchangeably but are not interchangeable.

“‘Conditional approval’ means you’re not approved and it means the school can’t move forward in any fashion as if it were approved,” Durfee said.

“Approval with conditions,” however, is different, he said, and means the school can move forward with the process.

About the Feb. 2019 SDCOE action, Durfee said, “[O]ur position is that the action the board took last night was to extend the term of the school’s petition for two years.”

CCSA leaders seemed to be striking a positive note and sidestepping completely the conditional approval issue.“We are happy that SOUL Charter School was approved for another two years,” said CCSA’s Regional Manager Michelle Anderson. “We look forward to continuing to build a positive and collaborative relationship with the county in the coming years so that more students can be served by quality schools of choice like SOUL,” she said.

Later, Haley said in an email, “I think there is a need for parental choice in our community, but the question is how can that be provided consistent with the law, best practices and in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Onerous conditions

It’s difficult to believe county leaders who say they want the school to succeed. If this is about serving kids, why put onerous conditions on the school and present a resolution that’s counter to the school’s success?

Is it fiscal responsibility as administrators claim – or actions designed to preserve power, control and ego, as cynics might claim?

This particular school is offering something unique and of value, and there is still hope that SOUL, San Dieguito and SDCOE can find a path to success that’s mutually beneficial for all parties.

SOUL, said CCSA’s Durfee back in 2016, aims to offer San Dieguito students an educational option in a district where not every student’s needs are being met in the traditional way.

“It’s a great story of leaders who have a great passion,” he said.

When SOUL was first approved by the county for two years in 2017, Donnellon said to SOUL founders, “I think what you’re doing with SOUL is amazing.”

Powell repeatedly asked fellow board members, “Why not give them a chance?”

Powell criticized what he called “overwhelming government codes” that make it difficult for charter schools to form.

He said if the school is not good, parents will take their kids out, adding that charters work when “we let the parents decide.”

“SOUL was founded upon principles of honesty and integrity, and we are deeply committed to putting students first, always,” said Fogelman in a written statement. “Unfortunately, our education system has found itself entrenched in bureaucracy and politics, and as a result, decisions get made that aren’t always in the best interest of kids.

“Given the multitude of successes we’ve experienced (including our WASC accreditation) in the past two years, we expected to get a three-year extension, as we had discussed with county staff.

“Nevertheless, we’ve shown what we’re capable of achieving in a short time frame. We now have two additional years to continuing pioneering a new model of education.

“I’m quite sure that every revolutionary act has been met with opposition. Just as we instill in our students, we see obstacles as opportunities to obtain grit and resilience, to show the strength of character to persevere.”

Fogelman called the support behind SOUL incredible and said, “It’s been a long time coming, and we’re not going anywhere.”

Enrollment is now being accepted for grades 7-11 at SOUL, a tuition-free public school. [soulcharterschool.org]

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com

SIDEBAR: Disputing the numbers

At the Jan. 9 San Diego County Board of Education meeting when the School of Universal Learning (SOUL) Charter School presented its petition for renewal, there was lengthy discussion about SOUL’s request for facilities under Proposition 39.

Proposition 39 gives charter schools the right to ask their host districts in which they are located (in this case, the San Dieguito Union High School District), for facilities, at fair market rent, if a certain number of in-district students will be enrolled.

SOUL provided the district with a list of students living within SDUHSD boundaries whose families had signed an Intent to Enroll form for 2019-2020.

San Dieguito denied the request, claiming it came up short and could only verify 76.8 students of the required 80. Attempts to verify the names were made primarily by phone calls to the families on the list.

But many were critical of the methods the district used to calculate its numbers.

California Charter Schools Association’s Michelle Anderson told the county board in Jan. that the district “used scare tactics and bogus calculations to not allow them to have the necessary enrollment to qualify for a site.”

SOUL Executive Director Marisa Fogelman addressed this issue in a Dec. 27 letter to SDUHSD Supt. Robert Haley.

In it she wrote, “SOUL was informed by parents who spoke with district staff that district staff asked them harassing, inappropriate and redundant questions not intended to simply verify meaningful interest in SOUL, but rather to scare parents into denying meaningful interest.”

Fogelman said SOUL received complaints from parents that they either never received a call from the district, that they received a call but weren’t home and were unable to call anyone back to verify an intent to enroll, or that they “were asked the same question numerous times, were asked if they were ready to unenroll their child from the district, and/or were ready to enroll at SOUL right now.”

CCSA’s Anderson said in a statement that students cannot be disenrolled from a district school for showing interest in attending a charter school.In an email statement, Anderson wrote, “SDUHSD illegally harassed parents that signed Intent to Enroll forms for SOUL Charter and then deliberately and illegally reduced the school’s projected average daily attendance (ADA) to below 80 students with the apparent intent to deprive its in-district students of the educational facilities to which they are legally entitled.”

In an interview after the Jan. 9 county board meeting, Haley disagreed with Anderson’s charges, saying, “Our people are very polite when they make the phone calls. They don’t intimidate anybody, and that’s a gross mischaracterization being made by this outside charter person.”

About the comment that the district was prompting parents to say they would not enroll at SOUL, Haley said, “That wouldn’t be accurate. They’re pretty careful about following very basic questions.” He said they were just asking if the parent intends to enroll their child at SOUL.

“We’re just doing our due diligence,” he said.

Testimonials

After public comment at the Jan. 9 meeting, county board member Mark Powell asked Fogelman to clarify Anderson’s comments about the district using scare tactics.

“Some of the feedback we received is that they [parents] felt intimidated by the phone calls made to them,” Fogelman said.

She said they were asked if they were ready to disenroll their child from the district.

“In addition, we received reports that there were several interested families that never received a phone call,” she added.

SOUL parent Julie Anderson received a call in November 2018 from the district and said the first question was, “Is your child currently enrolled next year for SOUL?”

Anderson said she was perplexed because it was not possible to enroll at the time for 2019-2020.

She said she was then asked to confirm that her child was not enrolled at SOUL for next year.

She replied that technically that’s true but she intends to enroll her daughter for the coming year when the time comes.

Anderson said the response was, “‘Oh, then that’s a no.’ And I had to say no, it’s not a no. It’s physically impossible right now, isn’t it?”

“I understand their concern that they call,” she said, but added that it felt like badgering. “They asked me the question and I didn’t answer it the way they wanted me to.”

She said some of her friends on the Intent to Enroll list told her that after the district’s call they felt space for their child at a San Dieguito school would no longer be available if they expressed interest in SOUL.

Another friend said she was contacted by the district and was told they were calling to confirm that the parent was transferring their child to SOUL. Her friend said she hadn’t decided yet and to keep the child enrolled in the district for now.

“They made it sound like they had to make a choice,” Anderson said. “My friends are terrified of the district.”

Three other friends said they were never even contacted.

Anderson, who lives in south Carlsbad in the San Dieguito district, called the district back to confirm her intention to enroll her daughter again next year at SOUL because “I wanted to make sure I’m in the yes pile.”

Haley response

Another SOUL parent, Patti Riley, was contacted by the district but wasn’t available. She called back four times and left messages but never heard back from the district.

She and her husband finally wrote a letter to Haley to confirm that they intend to re-enroll their daughter at SOUL next year. Haley responded to say that all currently enrolled families’ forms were counted as a yes.

Riley, president of SOUL’s Parent Teacher Organization, said her friend got a call from someone at the district office who asked if she had ever taken a tour or visited the school.

When her friend said no, she felt the district discounted her because she had not yet visited the school, even though she had signed the form expressing meaningful interest in SOUL.

“It’s just not on people‘s radar in November,” said Riley, who resides in Carmel Valley.

Haley disputed that the district registered a “no” if a parent did not call the district back.

“It’s the opposite,” he said. “If they were currently enrolled at SOUL, and we knew they were currently enrolled, regardless of whether they called us back or not, we assumed they would be returning.”

“Our role is to come up with whether they can reasonably enroll 80 in-district students for next year,” Haley said in Jan.

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