By Beth Barrett, LA Daily News Staff Writer
July 7, 2008 - Amid growing demand for space on Los Angeles Unified campuses, the district is prepared to offer regulatory help to as many as 10 charter schools by exempting them from city and county zoning ordinances next year.
The move comes as charter schools have charged LAUSD with lagging efforts in granting them a fair share of space on traditional campuses that they are entitled to under Proposition 39.
Senior Deputy Superintendent Ray Cortines said the pilot program is part of a district effort to show a "new face" in dealing with the charter schools as the district struggles to find room at the traditional sites.
"We are exploring new territory of the school district in this activity ... my effort is to support charters and help them find adequate space," Cortines said.
"In essence, I'm trying to expedite it," said Cortines, who proposed streamlining regulatory approval for charters meeting safety and environmental standards to Superintendent David Brewer III in a June 30 memo.
"It means circumventing the weeks and months people sit on things, that they're studying or investigating it."
But charter advocates say that while any effort is welcome, more is needed to meet the charter guarantees under Proposition 39 and the program should be extended to all charters.
"Ten is a completely arbitrary number. They should waive (the zoning ordinances) for every school that needs it," said Caprice Young, executive director of the California Charter Schools Association.
"The problem with being arbitrary is it's leaving kids on the street again."
Young said it also is unclear whether the proposal will provide the intended zoning relief or simply add more bureaucratic roadblocks.
District officials said details of the policy still need to be worked out, which means it might not provide immediate help for schools like CHAMPS charter in Van Nuys.
After a recent offer to co-locate at Taft High School was withdrawn, CHAMPS is seeking a zoning exemption if no other district space becomes available so it can buy a Van Nuys Boulevard office building to add 300 students.
CHAMPS Principal Norm Isaacs said the exemption is needed because the buildings' corridors are 5 feet wide rather than 6 feet - as property zoned for a school requires.
So far, Isaacs said, the district also has not offered any help.
"The district hasn't been supportive at all," Isaacs said. "If we could get the exemption, life would be so much easier."
Brewer did not return calls for comment.
Board members are to begin considering the zoning exemption policy this week and are reviewing Cortines' proposal.
John Creer, director of planning and development for the facilities division, said the state education code allows the district to make such zoning exemptions.
Some board members say they are concerned with the legality as well as potential impact on neighborhoods.
"I think this is a big deal," said Tamar Galatzan. "Zoning regulations are there for a purpose: to keep the character of a community and to ensure safety.
"Before I'd support anything for the school district to override those concerns, I'd want to make sure enough safeguards are in place to not run willy-nilly over communities."
And board member Julie Korenstein said she would vote against the proposal.
"It opens up Pandora's box," Korenstein said. "If they want a zoning change they need to go to the city where the charter will be put in.
"I don't know why it becomes our responsibility for another school district ... They don't have to follow board policy, they have their own board of directors. Why does L.A. Unified have to go after a zoning change for them?"
United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy - whose union doesn't represent charter teachers - said the union would oppose the plan.
"I'm absolutely opposed to it," Duffy said. "Once again, it's breaks for charters and no breaks for the public schools."
Duffy said as charter school issues are being addressed, problems such as health and safety at traditional schools aren't getting the same attention.
"We want to level the playing field. For too long charters have had everything their way and very little oversight," Duffy said.
Cortines defended the one-year pilot program as a cautious way to determine whether the district could speed up opening charter schools.
"I want to know if there's an outcry from the neighbors ... if someone thought they were trying to redevelop an area and they didn't want a school in the middle of it," he said.
Under the program, charter schools would have to pay for processing the zoning exemption request, including a $10,000 deposit of which $2,500 would not be refundable.
They also would have to pay for environmental reviews, and meet all building and safety codes.
There are 125 charter schools with 45,000 students. Another 25 schools expected to open this fall, bringing charter students to about 7 percent of the district's total students.
"Increased demand for seats by charter schools on district campuses - combined with the district's instructional reform efforts to increase student achievement and building program to relieve overcrowding - cause the need for alternative solutions for Proposition 39," the report on the proposal says.
"Zoning exemptions, deliberatively administered through a due diligence policy and process adopted by the board and in concert with applicable local jurisdictions can provide one such alternative solution."