SANTA ANA, Calif.—In recent times, California’s charter schools have faced greater scrutiny, with the California Teachers Association spending millions last year to lobby for an overhaul of the charter system.
Against this backdrop, a famous charter in Orange County has found its 20-year peaceful relationship with the local school district descending into a bitter feud.
Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) has produced many famed alumni, including Pedro Pascal, or Oberyn Martell on “Game of Thrones.” Another is Hannah Elyse, who had a month-long appearance on NBC’s “The Voice.” Alumni Matthew Morrison, who went on to star in “Glee,” has said his experience at OCSA was the “cornerstone of his professional career.”
When OCSA applied for its regular 5-year license renewal last year, the Santa Ana School District took issue with dozens of charter policies and practices that have been in place for decades, according to school officials.
The district also hit the school with a much-disputed $19 million bill last year for retroactive special education contributions. And it attempted to block millions of dollars in state funding to the school.
The district argues that OCSA has a discriminatory enrollment process. It contends that the school does follow the rule for charters, that they cannot pick and choose their students; charters must accept all students.
This latter charge has become a common one against charters in California.
Enrollment processes that require essays, auditions, and grade reviews, have been under scrutiny by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—a group that has spurred the Santa Ana district in its scrutiny of OCSA.
On Feb. 5, OCSA presented its case to the Orange County School Board. OCSA hopes the board can take over authority before July. That’s when the school could lose its license.
The district, which currently has authority over the school, did approve the school’s license renewal Dec. 10, 2019—but with conditions, which the school says is the same thing as denying it. The school charges that those conditions are unclear; they came in the form of a 37-page document broadly criticizing some of the main elements of the school’s charter.
The district’s lawyers claim the district must maintain authority over the school. The school’s lawyers argue the board can take authorizing power. The school board has up to 90 days to respond to the Feb. 5 appeal.
‘Put our children’s anxieties and fears aside’
During the appeal before the school board, students and their parents voiced concerns; many of the pleas were tearful.
“My daughter has finally found her tribe, OCSA is a gem. It is an amazing school,” said Pattie Juarez, the mother of an 8th grader in OCSA’s music conservatory. “Please help us put our children’s anxieties and fears aside, because they think their beloved school is shutting down. We need your help.”
Louisa Ramero, a senior at OCSA, said, “My mother is a single mother who has had to work multiple jobs to be able to support my family and my artistic endeavors.”
“OCSA’s unparalleled arts education is something that cannot be described in words, but rather something that must be experienced,” she said. “Even more beyond our students, just the fact that so many people could lose their job if this charter doesn’t get renewed is quite a scary feeling. Me being a graduate, I shouldn’t have to feel worried about this, but I would love for other students to get to experience this.”
Another OCSA student said, “I would just like to say that OCSA’s has literally been nothing but wonderful to me, there is no other experience like it. I have been accepted there, my old school made me feel like an outcast. … This school has been teaching me to make positive impacts—this school has given me so much self love, I wouldn’t be where I am today without OCSA.”
Surprise Special Ed Shortfall
OCSA, along with other Santa Ana schools, received notification from the district last spring that the district had retroactively discovered a shortfall in special education funding.
For the past 17 years, the government contributions to special ed combined with the funds already withheld from each school in the district for special ed funding, did not cover the amount the district spent on it.
The district billed the schools for millions.
Representatives from three other schools thus billed co-authored an editorial in the Orange County Register stating: “Not once in the nearly two decades our schools have been open has [the Santa Ana School District] ever claimed we owe them anything above the amount they already withhold. To our knowledge, no audit of [the district’s] financial statements from the past 20 years has ever backed up this sudden shortfall claim.”
They used an analogy to describe how it felt receiving that bill March last year. “It would be as if you had been paying your mortgage for 15 years on your house, only to have the bank claim that they made a mistake in calculating your payment and demand a million dollars, without providing proof of the error.”
And that was the beginning of the feud.
The district has singled out OSCA as the most contentious school among those billed.
OCSA has said paying the bill would be detrimental to school operations.The district has argued that OCSA has the money.
The district had moved to withhold $500,000 monthly in funding against the bill. A court ruled last year that the district cannot withhold funds because of this amount owing. That “would have bankrupted OCSA within six months,” OCSA Executive Director Ralph Opacic said at the appeal before the school board.
A court also urged the district not to block $2 million in state funding to the charter by listing it as not in “good standing.” The district complied and reinstated the charter’s “good standing” status.
Alleged Discrimination in Enrollment
At the board hearing, the district cited ACLU materials that claim OCSA’s enrollment process is discriminatory.
ACLU has reported that “Although people of color make up about 90 percent of the population in Santa Ana, only 10 percent to 20 percent of students who attended OCSA were people of color.”
OCSA has required auditions for applicants. ACLU reported, “When charter schools require essays or interviews but purportedly do not use them to select students, these hurdles give the appearance of selectivity, which may discourage applications from students from less-privileged backgrounds or students who lack confidence in their abilities.”
ACLU charges that this may violate laws that say charters cannot select students, but must be open to all on equal terms: “Such policies may violate state and federal civil rights laws if they have an unjustified negative disparate impact on protected student groups such as students of color, English learners, or immigrant students.”
Opacic denounced the district for citing ACLU materials instead of the school’s own policies. For example, he said, the school does not require identification documents that would discourage some immigrants from applying.
The school provides many extracurricular programs for local, disadvantaged students, he said. For example, Camp OCSA is a series of after-school arts workshops available free of charge to
Santa Ana elementary school students.
Opacic said, “In their findings, they talk about the fact that our demographics don’t represent their district, and yet—for the first time in 20 years—they refused to distribute our flyers for Camp OCSA.”
He also argued that his school’s rigorous enrollment process is what makes the school so successful.
Established in 1987, the school has won many national recognitions, including being named the No. 1 Charter High School in California by Niche. The U.S. Department of Education and National Endowment for the Arts have recognized OCSA as a model arts education program. OCSA has received the distinction of “Exceptional Charter School in Special Education” by the National Association of Special Education Teachers for 2017, 2018 and 2019.
OCSA has about 2,200 students grades 7–12, as well as about 550 faculty members.
“As the charter authorizer, we have the responsibility to ensure the charter meets the conditions,” said Alfonso Jimenez, deputy superintendent of educational services for the district. “We want to reiterate from our previous position, that [our] concerns stem from OCSA’s operations and admission practices.”
“The fact that OCSA has appealed to the county, in no way shape or form, alleviates them from their responsibilities to meet with us,” Jimenez said. “We are still the current authorizer—OCSA is not entitled to, or legally authorized to switch authorizers … or refuse to work with its authorizer.”
The next school board meeting, March 4, could reveal more clearly whether authorization can be, or will be, transferred.