It isn’t entirely in the clear yet, but after more than a month of late night board meetings, worst case scenario speculations, and passionate “save our school” rallying calls, Cesar Chavez Charter School’s future became a whole lot more secure this week. Faced with a freshly fired principal, an expired charter, and a host of district administrators adamant that the school doesn’t qualify for renewal of its charter-and as a result the very real possibility of a mid-year shut down from the state only a few weeks away-the popular dual-language-immersion elementary school got some much needed breathing room Tuesday night. The Santa Barbara School Board narrowly approved, on a 3-2 vote, a resolution extending Cesar Chavez’s charter through the remainder of the school year, essentially buying time so that the school, working with strong oversight from the district, can figure out its next move.
Due to the crowd of several hundred people who turned out for the meeting on November 24, it was held in the auditorium of Santa Barbara High School instead of the District’s downtown headquarters. The board revisited a debate that has been dominating its meetings since October: Does CCCS meet any of the four state-mandated performance standards that allow a district to grant a charter renewal? According to Superintendent Brian Sarvis and his staff, the answer is a clear and definite, albeit apologetic, “No.” On the other side of the fence, the school’s supporters-its students, their parents, Cesar Chavez’s Governance Council, and a few dual-immersion experts brought in by the school to opine on the subject-insist that the picture painted broad-brush by state test scores does not tell the whole story.
Sarvis, resolute in his interpretations of the school’s test-score track record-and mindful of recent rumors that California is considering pulling the plug on charter schools that test in the lowest five percent (currently CCCS is at the 4.7% mark) as the state tries to qualify for a windfall of funding from the federal Race to the Top program-introduced a resolution on Tuesday night that formed the basis for the one the board passed, but with one important difference. Sarvis recommended extending the charter for the rest of the year with radically ramped-up district oversight to try to improve test scores. The resolution left the door open for the school to re-invent itself before the start of next school year as either an entirely new charter school (something which requires substantial funding, hoop-jumping at both the district and state levels and lots of legal leg work) or a school of choice within the district.
However, much to the displeasure of the CCCS community, which has been committed to seeking renewal of its existing charter, Sarvis’s plan stated unequivocally that the school does not qualify for renewal, a statement that many felt was a certain death sentence for the school as presently composed. “No one wants to close this school. I certainly don’t want to close this school: But there is no question, you cannot renew their charter,” explained Sarvis. In his view, the only way forward was to abandon all efforts at renewal and begin focusing immediately on developing a new program for the board to vote on sometime next spring, so as to allow for a smooth transition at the start of the next school year.
In the end, the board majority, working off of a motion made by Cordero, took the basic premise of Sarvis’s proposal but gutted the language such that specific mention of the school’s substandard academic performances and failure to meet renewal requirements were removed entirely. This leaves the option of renewal still very much on the table should the school wish to pursue it, while also leaving the door open for the entirely new charter option to be explored in the coming months. Cesar Chavez has yet to officially petition the board for renewal but when and if it does, should its petition be denied, the school can appeal the decision to the County of Education and then on to the state.
The nuanced change was not without its detractors. As boardmember Susan Deacon, who with Kate Parker ultimately voted against the revised resolution, put it, “I’m worried that we are putting something off we are going to have to do anyways. We are a nation of laws and we have to follow what the state has written…I really think a new charter is your [Cesar Chavez’s] best hope.” Ironically, even the board members that approved the resolution-Bob Noel, Ed Heron, and Annette Cordero-all seemed to agree, each of them opining to varying degrees that the new charter option, though a “tough row to hoe” as Noel put it, appeared to be the school’s best shot at continuing next fall.
Cordero, who helped found Cesar Chavez when the school opened nearly 10 years ago, took it one step further, telling the remaining crowd at the close of the four-hour meeting, “I do think it is really risky for the school to retain a strong reliance on only the renewal option. This school is too important to lose.”
For the school’s part, Lee Fleming, Cesar Chavez’s Governing Council President, said late Tuesday night, “That [the new charter option] might be the best thing for our community but we’ve literally had 24 hours to consider it:We need time to investigate.” And now, thanks to the board, that is exactly what they have.