A charter high school uses legal threats to squeeze into Horace Mann Middle School without notifying parents or teachers
The San Francisco Unified District is facing scrutiny over its decision to move a charter high school into Horace Mann Middle School for the 2010-11 school year. Parents and teachers at Horace Mann and even members of the Board of Education were not informed of this decision until it was finalized last month, sparking questions about how this decision could have been made without communicating to all the parties involved.
This is the third time in recent years that the district has moved charter schools into public school facilities without notifying employees and parents before a decision is reached. In 2008, the district decided to relocate Excelsior Middle School to International Studies Academy High School, notifying parents of the move just months before the school year started. The charter school City Arts and Technology took over Excelsior's site and was notified of the move a month before Excelsior parents.
In another case from 2008, district officials made a decision to co-locate Denman Middle School with Leadership High Charter School, again without informing the community of its decision until it was finalized. Now the charter school Metro Arts and Technology High School is moving from Burton High School in the Bayview District to Horace Mann in the Mission.
San Francisco Board of Education member Jill Wynns didn't know about Metro's move until parents brought up the issue at the June meeting. She said it's hard to let the community know about impending decisions because balancing community involvement and trying to avoid "public hysteria" is a difficult task. "Our commitment is to involve the community, but they are not allowed to make the decisions," Wynns told the Guardian. "We want them to know, but the decision is not up to them."
Still, Horace Mann teachers said that the district's habit of not notifying the community of its decisions isn't fair, especially since Metro parents knew about the move months before they did. "The process is really disrespectful to the parents and it's happening consistently to the disempowered," a Horace Mann teacher who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, told us. "This is happening to schools with high amounts of people of color and low socioeconomic statuses."
Envision Schools, the Oakland-based organization managing two charter schools in San Francisco, including Metro, wrote a letter to Superintendent Carlos Garcia on Oct. 15 requesting to move Metro to another facility, citing lack of natural light in its classrooms, lack of offices and spaces for administration, inadequate science labs, and lack of an identifiable school front entrance. Metro is protected under Proposition 39, a law voters approved in 2000 mandating that school districts must accommodate charter schools with facilities comparable to those used by other students.
Wynns said part of the problem is that Prop. 39 gives charter schools too much power. "The regulations are all biased in favor of the charter schools, and the charter schools rights are paramount," Wynns told us. "We had Metro in a facility that, in my opinion, was more Prop. 39 compliant than the facility they will be going to now. And now we are going to crowd them in a middle school."
Board members who criticize the deal say that the district didn't follow district policy in this case. Wynns said that while some members of the board were under the impression that Metro was staying at Burton or that Horace Mann was only a consideration, district officials had already made the decision that Metro was moving to Horace Mann without notifying the board — a violation of board policy.
In an April 1 memo, the district finalized the offer for Horace Mann and then took the offer back and offered the Burton site in an April 30 memo. Metro lawyer Paul Minney responded in a May 11 memo, demanding co-location at Horace Mann and threatening legal action. The district responded by reinstating its initial offer of Horace Mann in a May 28 memo.
"Districts have a legal obligation to provide all charter schools with appropriate space to run a quality educational program. Consideration has to be given to determine if a designated school site is able to share facilities without having a significant impact on either school's day to day operations," district spokesperson Gentle Blythe told the Guardian. "In the case of Mann and Metro, the decision to co-locate was a matter of pending litigation and the ideal process was usurped by legal constraints."
Board member Rachel Norton said that much of the miscommunication was the result of informal conversations between Envision Schools CEO Bob Lenz, Superintendent Garcia, and Horace Mann Principal Mark Sanchez about the impending move. In an e-mail dated March 11, Lenz contacted Garcia about their upcoming March 17 meeting and stated that Sanchez thought a partnership between Metro and Horace Mann would be "revolutionary." According to board policy, negotiations are made between Director of Charter Schools Mary Richards and the head of the affected charter school. Although these informal conversations aren't a violation of board policy, Norton said that these conversations created miscommunication.
Lenz wouldn't comment on Norton's remarks, but said, "It's most important to look at how the district and Envision Schools could be good partners together. Rather than look back, we look forward to participating in a transparent process with the district going forward with the Prop. 39 process."
According to Horace Mann teachers, Garcia and Sanchez claimed they were not aware that they had agreed to a final, binding offer, although correspondences suggested otherwise. E-mails dated March 30 included final offer copies of facilities for Metro to Garcia and Sanchez, who did not return our calls seeking comment by press time.
"I'm not quite sure who knew what, when," Norton said. "I think it's pretty clear that people were notified about the final offer that went out. Whether or not they saw that notification is another question. I'm certainly not accusing anyone of lying, but I think that there were just two levels of understanding because it wasn't a clear process."
"Its hard to believe that as previous president of the school board, Mark [Sanchez] did not know that this was a final offer," a Horace Mann teacher said. "This has put a huge strain on the relationship with the staff and the principal."
Despite tensions within Horace Mann staff, newly appointed Metro Principal Nick Kappelhof said he's looking forward to the next school year. "I view this as an opportunity to partner in ways that's not common in other co-locations," Kappelhof told us. "Our philosophies are aligned and we're excited to learn from them. I see it as a rich opportunity between staff and a great community."
Metro has a one-year lease with Horace Mann and will occupy eight classrooms in the sixth-grade annex building and five rooms in the main building. Although many parents have fears about these middle school and high school students interacting, staff members at Horace Mann and Metro plan on organizing different bell schedules and designating separate areas for the two groups.
As the school year draws nearer, Horace Mann staff hopes for ways to get past this messy situation. "I hope Envision doesn't feel the need to retaliate against the public school system, and that they think twice before they threaten a lawsuit because it's easy and it's the first thing they go to," a Horace Mann teacher told us. "I hope there are lessons learned on both sides about how to do this successfully in the future. I think it can be a positive experience — co-location doesn't have to be hard."
But Wynns and Norton fear Metro will pressure the district to let the charter school remain at the site, whether or not students and parents there now think it's a good fit. "I will be very surprised if their Prop. 39 request [for facilities following this school year] will not say Horace Mann — and I believe [it] will," Wynns said of Metro.
"I want us to do everything in our power to protect ourselves against that happening [Metro extending its stay at Horace Mann]," Norton said. "I don't know precisely what that would be, but I think we have to take steps to make it clear that the site is unavailable for them next year."
With an uncertain future, Horace Mann will open its doors to Metro this month, becoming either another example of a growing partnership or another public facility fallen prey to charter school takeover, depending on one's perspective.