OC Charter School Survives Rigorous Scrutiny, District Loses Control Over It

March 5, 2020 Updated: March 6, 2020

COSTA MESA, Calif.—A months-long fight to keep an Orange County charter school open achieved its goal on March 4.

The Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) voted three to one to approve the Orange County School of the Arts’ (OCSA) renewal petition for the next five-year term, beginning on July 1, 2020. This also marks a new beginning with OCBE as the school’s new authorizer.

“It’s been very tense,” Kelly Townsend, president of OCSA’s parent organization told The Epoch Times. “It’s been a school that’s changed all of our lives. My child was a dreamer, she wanted to grow up and be a princess at Disneyland, and with the classes she gets to take in our conservatory she gets to learn how to do all of those things … every single thing she learns from classes are transferable to real life jobs, and she wants all of those to be with Disney. We’re very lucky.”

The famed arts charter school opened nearly 30 years ago and currently has about 2,200 students. It’s known for training successful alumni in the performing arts, including actors in “Game of Thrones” and “Glee.”

It operated under the authority of the Santa Ana School District. But the district and the school have been at odds for months, including ongoing litigation and strongly worded public statements against each other.

The disruption of the peaceful relationship between the district and school coincided with a recently increased scrutiny of charter schools statewide.

Epoch Times Photo
Orange County School of the Arts, in Santa Ana, Calif. (Courtesy of Orange County School of the Arts)
Epoch Times Photo
Orange County Board of Education member John W. Bedell speaks at board meeting on March 4, 2020. (Jamie Joseph/The Epoch Times)

When OCSA applied for its regular 5-year charter license renewal in December, the district objected against a handful of school policies and practices that have been standard procedure at the school for decades, according to school officials.

While freezing millions in the school’s funding, the district also sent the school a $19 million bill last year for retroactive special education contributions. The district had discovered a shortfall in the amount it was withholding from local schools for nearly 20 years for special education. It retroactively charged all local schools.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) spurred the district along and amplified its grievances against the charter. ACLU has been critical toward charter schools that mandate essays, auditions, or grade reviews as part of the application process. By law, public charters are not allowed to select students; they must be open to anyone.

The district, citing ACLU materials, argued that OCSA has a discriminatory enrollment process.

In the past, OCSA required students to send in audition tapes as part of the enrollment process. OCSA’s founder, Ralph S. Opacic, Ed.D., said at the March 4 board meeting that the school no longer admits students through that process.

Instead, the school has “placement activities” prior to admittance, which gives the school an idea of which art conservatory would be the best fit for each student. Admissions are determined by lottery.

“Every student that comes to the placement activity will be in the lottery for some conservatory where they’ll be successful,” Opacic told the board.

The placement activity occurs prior to admission for scheduling and capacity reasons, Opacic said.

“What [the district] would like us to do is place 2,200 names in a hat, and pull out the first 400 that would come out of the hat. But if those first 400 are dancers—I only have 14 dance rooms,” Opacic said. “I can only have 280 dancers. If all 400 showed up as dancers, we wouldn’t be able to provide a sound educational program for them.”

Epoch Times Photo
Orange County School of the Arts, in Santa Ana, Calif. (Courtesy of Orange County School of the Arts)

Councilmember Rebecca Gomez was the only opposition vote on the board.

She continued to critique the school’s enrollment practices and to express concern about the placement activities.

“I would hate to see that we’re limiting those dreams of those kids by creating some sort of audition process,” Gomez said.

In December 2019, the district had not flat-out denied the school’s license renewal, but rather accepted it with conditions. OCSA had argued those conditions were unclear and so difficult to meet, that it was the same thing as denying the renewal.

Before the vote, Gomez said, “I don’t see what the harm would be in approving the petition with those conditions to assure that some of these changes have, in fact, been made.”

Board President Mari Barke, Vice President Ken Williams, and board member Lisa Sparks voted for the approval without conditions.

The packed boardroom erupted in a cheer and a round of applause after the vote was announced.

The school had first asked the Board of Education on Feb. 5 to take control of it, so it would no longer have to work with the district as its authorizer. And now its wish has been granted. The change in oversight takes place as of June 30.

Cheryl Laven is a parent of a student who began attending the charter last year. She told The Epoch Times that when the district billed OCSA $19 million, it “was a shock and confusing at first.”

“Certainly the fear of the school closing was a concern,” Laven said. “I feel absolutely fantastic now though. I feel that the OCBE is the right place in terms of oversight for OCSA.”