By John Crowder
At their board meeting held on Wednesday, April 12, 2017, the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD, or District) Board approved a petition from Voices College-Bound Language Academies (Voices, Petitioners) to open a charter school in the District with a dual-immersion program on a 4-1 vote.
Due to the number of parents with children in attendance at their meeting in support of the petition, discussion was moved to an earlier time on the agenda.
Dr. Linda Delgado, WCCUSD Charter Oversight, reported on staff’s review of the Voices petition based on a data review and staff rubric findings focused on six possible reasons for denial.
Delgado reported that petitioners offered an unsound educational program, that Petitioners were demonstrably unable to implement the program and that Petitioners did not provide a reasonably comprehensive description of all required elements. Specifically, she said staff believed the ratio of English only to Spanish only speakers was problematic, details about curriculum and teaching methods were inadequate, and that there was concern about whether Voices would draw Special Education resources away from the District. She also said that the proposal called for teachers and staff to be paid significantly less than WCCUSD personnel, and that the proposal failed to address standards for suspensions and expulsions.
Public comments followed Dr. Delgado’s presentation. About a dozen speakers, mostly Hispanic mothers, spoke in favor of the petition. Nobody spoke in opposition. One speaker said, “I am a mother who wants the best for my child,” then pleaded for approval to provide an opportunity for her child that she did not have.
WCCUSD board members asked questions and commented on the petition and the review process.
Board Member Tom Panas asked a series of questions involving staff concerns, remarking, “We respect our staff, at the same time, we want to make sure we’re all agreeing on the facts.” His questions revealed several discrepancies between the staff assessment and Voices explanations of their program, including a rebuttal to the staff report that Voices had submitted.
Responding to Panas’ questions, Voices spokesperson Frances Teso stated that the one year their other schools had had suspensions, the number suspended was less than 1%, and that expulsions were 0%. She also said that special education staff and providers would be based locally, and that special needs students were fully included in classrooms, while there was, “no reason to believe” that the proposed school would not participate in the same SELPA that other Voices schools participated in.
With respect to teacher pay, Teso said, “In any given step, we pay $2000 to $5000 more than the District pays the teachers here in West Contra Costa County.” She went on to describe the benefits package offered to teachers by Voices, along with bonuses, above salary, that their teachers were eligible for.
Board Member Mister Phillips expressed his inclination to support the petition because of the openness and honesty of supporters, the equity of having a Spanish-focused program when the District had recently approved a Mandarin program, and because of concerns over the vetting process used by District staff. “The process did not go the way that I personally think that it should have gone,” he said, “and there are issues around transparency in the process, there are issues around the board getting accurate information.” Phillips went on to say that he had asked District staff for a response to the Voices rebuttal, “And that response never came. I don’t know why it didn’t come, but it didn’t.” Phillips continued, “Then the last thing is, Voices does appear to get results.”
Board President Elizabeth Block weighed in on the staff report, as well. “I am very troubled by the number of inaccuracies in this report,” she said. “And I’m especially troubled, that a Superintendent, who I think is doing good things in our District, approved this report. I think your (staff’s) presentation raises the question of whether or not you could recognize a good school when you see them.”
Delgado responded by saying that staff was fair in their evaluation. Emphasizing that charter schools must meet high levels of accountability, she said, “The standards by which we are to judge charter schools are not commensurate with the standards with which we may judge our District schools. They’re different things. And good practice in charter school evaluation suggests we hold them to very high standards.”
Board Member Madeline Kronenberg also took issue with the staff report. “I’m not seeing rock-solid evidence in the staff report. I just have questions.” She continued, “Normally I would have great difficulty in going against a staff report. In this case, it’s not that hard.”
Board Clerk Valerie Cuevas expressed concern about the District meeting the needs of students. “When I hear parents come and speak, what I’m hearing at the heart of it is, ‘you’re not serving us, so I have to go find an alternative.” She went on to say that, “Our programs must be failing our students and our parents, because they’re seeking alternatives. The data’s clear that they’re [Voices] outperforming the District…]. She emphasized the need for the District to stop making excuses about why things couldn’t be done, and start working to improve student outcomes.
Following discussion, the board voted 4-1 to approve the Voices petition for a full five-year term. Board member Phillips, who had advocated for an approval time of three years, was the lone dissenting vote.