The Adelanto school board rejects parents' petition for change, saying signatures to overhaul Desert Trails Elementary were rescinded. Now a controversy that mirrors one in Compton is simmering.
By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times | http://lat.ms/z4ehrj
Parents of the Desert Trails Parent Union rally in Adelanto last month to support their parent trigger petition. This month, the school board denied the petition. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times / January 12, 2012)
February 26, 2012, 11:15 p.m. :: It was supposed to be a historic victory in Adelanto, marking the first time California parents had forced sweeping changes at their struggling school under the state's pioneering parent trigger law.
Instead, in a stunning setback last week, the Adelanto school board unanimously rejected the parents' petition for change, announced that parents of one-fifth of the students had rescinded their signatures, and set the stage for another bruising battle over the controversial law.
The fiasco in Adelanto, a community of 27,000 on the western edge of the Mojave Desert, raised key questions about the law — chiefly, whether parents who say they were misled about the petition are allowed to revoke their signatures. A similar issue arose a year ago in the law's first test case in Compton, where the school board also rejected a parent trigger petition amid charges and countercharges of deceit and harassment. The case remains in court.
Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based educational group that lobbied for the law and trained parents in Compton and at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, says recisions are not allowed and is threatening to sue the school board.
Gabe Rose, the group's deputy director, said some parents have said they were misled by petition supporters — who refused to identify themselves — into rescinding their signatures. He said the parents were told false stories that the school would be shut down the next day, for instance, if the petition was approved.
"Once again, we have seen defenders of the status quo use the full range of lies, misinformation, and dirty tactics to pressure parents into 'rescinding' their signatures," Rose said. "These anti-parent tactics are not only immoral, but are in direct violation of the parent trigger law … and they will not be allowed to stand."
But Adelanto Supt. Darin Brawley said the law does not address whether parents can rescind their signatures, and that those obtained under false pretenses ought not be counted. At a packed board meeting Tuesday, before an audience split with supporters and opponents wearing T-shirts for and against Parent Revolution, Brawley announced that parents representing 97 students had revoked their signatures. That helped drive down the number of valid signatures below the legal threshold of 333 needed to represent at least half of Desert Trails students.
The state Board of Education agrees that the law and related regulations are silent on the issue. "This is maybe a test case of this particular situation," said Patricia de Cos, the board's deputy executive director. "It would probably be something that attorneys at the local level would have to sort out."
Meanwhile, the author of the 2010 parent trigger law, former state Sen. Gloria Romero, said parents should be given one chance to revoke their signature within a specified time limit if they believe they were misled into signing the petition. "This would put the onus on organizers that you really have to be truthful and open and honest with parents," she said.
Cynthia Ramirez, a parent leader, said her group clearly explained the petition to those they approached and left them with written materials about it. A parent leader on the other side, Chrissy Alvarado, said her group spread no false information when speaking to parents about revoking their signatures.
Frank Wells, California Teachers Assn. spokesman, said the union helped Alvarado's group by providing three regional staff members to help parents understand charter law and to develop a process to check whether those who signed the petition understood it. (Parent Revolution provided Ramirez's group with three organizers to help with the petition campaign.) Wells denied Parent Revolution's charges that the union engineered the campaign, saying it was "parent-driven."
California's parent trigger efforts have been closely watched nationwide, as more than 20 other states have considered similar legislation. The law allows parents at low-performing schools, who represent at least half the students, to force changes in staffing and curriculum, close the campus or convert to a charter school. Charters are independent, publicly funded and mostly nonunion.
The Adelanto case also renewed questions over how to ensure that parents are fully informed about the petitions and how signatures ought to be gathered. The State PTA, for instance, reiterated its call for mandatory public meetings.
Adelanto board member Holly Eckes grilled parent leader Melody Medrano at the meeting on why her home was not included in the canvassing for signatures and questioned how inclusive the effort was. And board members repeatedly quizzed Medrano and others on their petition strategy.
The group had presented two petitions — one for a charter school and one for district reforms allowing them to hire their own principal with broad authority over staffing, curriculum and budgets. But they only submitted the charter petition as a tactic to force board action. They told parents they didn't want that option, either.
But board member Jermaine Wright asked parents if they were trying to "threaten" them and bluntly declared: "This is about power, not kids first."
Even as she affirmed support for Parent Revolution, Romero called the group's two-petition tactic a "dubious strategic choice" that was bound to confuse parents. She also criticized what she called "rookie political mistakes" in making demands she found politically unrealistic, such as a freer hand to hire and fire teachers, and allowing the debate to focus again on charter schools, which also occurred in Compton.
But Parent Revolution's organizing director Pat DeTemple defended the strategy as the best way to keep board members from simply dismissing parent demands. And Rose said his organization continued to stand behind Adelanto parents as they figured out their next step.
Meanwhile, at Desert Trails school, Principal David Mobley had a different goal in mind. "Let the healing begin," he said.