- New Heights Charter School
When the New Heights Charter School applied for space for the 2019 to 2020 school year under PROP-39, they told the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that they expected to serve 388.45 students per day in district classrooms. In compliance with the law, New Heights was given enough space at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School to satisfy their stated needs.
Looking back, a third of the space sacrificed by the public school students at MLK should have been kept for their use. The Average Daily Attendance (ADA) of New Heights students on the MLK campus during the year was 262.74, which is 125.71 students less than the charter school had projected. As acknowledged on the application for space under PROP-39, this over-allocation of space is subject to a financial penalty. Therefore, on August 13, 2020, the LAUSD Charter School Division sent New Heights a $242,754.94 invoice using a formula mandated by state law.
This is the fourth year in a row that New Heights asked for more space than they needed. In total, they have been charged $1,046,783.96 in over-allocation penalties. None of it has been paid.
The renewal of the New Heights charter was before the LAUSD Board at the November 24, 2020, meeting. A past-due debt to the district of $1,046,783.96 is a violation of the existing charter and should have been grounds to deny renewal, but would the board hold them accountable for the ongoing-harm this publicly funded private school is causing LAUSD students?
At the meeting, the charter school's Founder and Executive Director, Amy Berfield, was defiant, stating that she was "not going to comply and pay". Ignoring the data provided by the LAUSD, Berfield maintains that the school "did not ever overestimate our enrollment." She also denies that any harm was caused to the district's students or that the district incurred any unnecessary costs.
Berfield tried to make her point to the Board Members by using a metaphor that substituted false fire alarms for over-allocation. In this tale, a Fire Chief fines schools for these alarms because she feels that they are bad for the morale of her firefighters. Berfield even asserts that her imaginary firefighters welcome these alarms because it gives them a chance to interact with the school community and promote fire safety.
This analogy is false because the reason for implementing this fine would have nothing to do with firefighter morale but to cover the cost of making these runs. In the same way, the over-allocation fee is not meant to cover the cost of providing charter school students space in the public school as Berfield maintains. Instead, it is to compensate the public school for having given up space that should have been available for their use. Furthermore, while Berfield pretends that PROP-39 is provided without a cost, the LAUSD has spent $1,237,619 renovating the space at MLK Elementary School since 2010 to conform with New Height's occupation.
The analogy is ridiculous because it assumes that those firefighters would choose to travel to a school with lights and sirens, risking injury to themselves and the public in to interact with the school community. Instead, they would plan a visit under controlled circumstances. Whatever perceived benefit Berfield thinks that host school gets out of her school's presence, the fact remains that her school has used the law to invade another school's campus. The public school had no say in the matter; they are forced to be a host to a parasite.
Board Member Jackie Goldberg did try to request additional information about the attempt to collect the $1,264,162.44 balance that is past due, but Charter School Division Director Jose' Cole-Gutie'rrez suggested that these issues should not be discussed in public while the issues are in dispute. However, Deputy Superintendent Megan Reilly did say that the conflict centered around how certain students should be counted. This suggests that New Heights is trying to use the ADA from a second, private campus to meet the projected enrollment at MLK. This theory is bolstered by the fact that one-third of New Height's grades are housed at the second campus, which is the percentage that they are short according to the district's invoice.
If New Heights is successful in using students served at another campus in determining their PROP-39 allotment, they will establish a precedent that will harm public school students throughout the district. This would mean that all charter schools are entitled to public space even if they have spent public funds renting or purchasing private properties. This would allow a school like New Heights to have average class sizes of 13 students (as they had in the 2019-2020 school year) while public school students crowd into the remaining classrooms.
While Board Members George McKenna and Kelly Gonez joined Goldberg in expressing concern over the situation, both voted with the majority to reapprove New Heights' charter. Goldberg abstained. Only Scott Schmerelson voted against renewing the charter. If this iteration of the board will not hold charter schools accountable, what will happen when charter school industry-backed candidate Tanya Ortiz Franklin takes her seat giving these privately run charter schools control of the board? Are schools like New Heights just holding out until their allies can make the total of $11,435,768.81 in over-allocation penalties owed to the students of Los Angeles disappear?