Editorial: Hollister district shows contempt for charter school petition

Kindergartner Sarah Reyes, 5, works on a language arts computer program as she rotates through four stations during class in February at the Gilroy Prep School.

The fact that the Hollister School District paid a law firm specifically to find “deficiencies” in a charter school petition underscores the sharp lines drawn in a political battle against reform models and shows that local officials – despite glaring evidence it would likely spur academic success – are steadfast against changing a failed system.

District trustees and administrators didn’t routinely examine the petition from Gilroy Prep School to open a campus on the poverty-stricken west side at R.O. Hardin. They weren’t merely doing their due diligence or ensuring the petition fell in line with the state education code’s requirements before approving a charter – a process that is set up to give trustees like those at the Hollister School District no discretion other than ensuring the application meets five basic requirements in the law, and a process that led to a unanimous approval in Gilroy.

By issuing a 31-page report – which carried a mocking tone and nitpicked at the petition as if the applicant was on trial for treason – district officials are doing nothing less than harassing Gilroy Prep leaders, with a not-so-subtle intention to create a line of daunting roadblocks with the hope that GPS Principal James Dent and others might throw up their arms and walk away in frustration.

Fortunately for Hollister residents, Dent and GPS are resilient and determined to open a campus here – for which HSD Superintendent Gary McIntire and trustees should be thankful. Dent and his team are determined to replicate the success achieved so far in Gilroy, where they opened GPS in 2011 and recently learned that the school’s initial class to take the API exam recorded the highest score for a first-year charter – over 960 out of 1,000, whereas Hollister’s most recent score as a whole was 768 – in state history.

Although McIntire after the report’s issuance asserted there are varying charter school models within a spectrum of successes and failures, the fact remains that the district’s hyper-inflated skepticism toward GPS is groundless because GPS has exhibited, to say the least, a necessary level of competence.

Some other facts that residents should consider: McIntire, like other career education bureaucrats desperately grasping to a broken system, has publicly expressed skepticism toward charter schools and the prospect they might be resulting in positive change. One of the incumbent candidates for the school board, Dee Brown, went as far as saying that although she is open to a charter petition from within the community, she “philosophically” disagrees with Gilroy Prep’s methods.

While some of those methods include longer school days, eliminating unions and tenure, merit pay for teachers, an emphasis on proper behavior and more parent involvement in the classroom – all moves in the right direction – school officials such as Brown have no legal basis to base their opposition on differences of opinion regarding teaching methods.

The education code not only mandates that school boards approve charter petitions meeting the basic requirements, but it also requires those same officials to encourage development of such campuses.

The district’s report falls far short of anything near encouragement.

That document includes allegations of deficiencies in reporting for staffing, special education intentions, the school’s governance structure, detailed plans for meeting needs of low-achieving or at-risk students, plans to address California’s transition to Common Core Standards in 2014, salaries not being broken down between restricted and unrestricted funding sources, costs of operating a lunch program, dispute resolution guidelines, plans for educating English learners and a host of other claims, most irrelevant to the process laid out by the state.

It is astonishing that a district whose finances were recently handcuffed by the state has such concerns about the charter’s itemized costs – let alone those of its lunch program, which is just plain silly. It is equally as astonishing that the financially troubled district likely paid thousands of dollars – officials had not released the cost estimate as of Thursday – to the law firm that wrote the report.

As GPS has shown in Gilroy, managing costs has not been a problem. The charter school operates with a surplus – perhaps causing envy for deficit-straddled HSD officials – and a reserve of a half-million bucks.

Even more absurd and almost childish was the manner in which the report chided the petition for references to GPS – even though, as Dent explained, the organization filed its own charter under that name and will be changing to a more generalized moniker once they expand.

In the end, this is yet another classic political battle between education reformers and change-resistant dinosaurs.

It is particularly shameful, though, how the Hollister district chose to display its contempt. Combined with its decision last year to abandon the inter-district transfer program that led to many families choosing other, more successful districts, HSD has a proven track record of restricting choice. And significant changes in leadership and attitude are the only options toward reversing the district’s dismal course.

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