Education

Arbitrator's penalty against LA Unified won't be last word on sharing space with charter schools

The gate for City Language Immersion Charter school, located on an L.A. Unified campus in the Crenshaw neighborhood. The charter school has three classrooms on a district site because of Prop. 39.
The gate for City Language Immersion Charter school, located on an L.A. Unified campus in the Crenshaw neighborhood. The charter school has three classrooms on a district site because of Prop. 39.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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An outside arbitrator has ruled the Los Angeles Unified School district must pay more than $7.1 million to a charter school operator after failing to offer it an option for sharing classroom space nearly a decade ago.

L.A. Unified officials acknowledged violating a California law known as Proposition 39 — which requires districts to find space for charter schools to co-locate on its campuses alongside traditional public schools — in 2007, when they declined to offer space to Ivy Academia Charter School.

To district officials, the arbitration award marks the end of a chapter in the district's history of compliance with the Prop. 39 co-location statute — a period during which the district's schools were overcrowded and sharable classroom space was more scarce.

"We won’t see something like this ever again," said David Huff, an attorney who represented the district in the arbitration.

But that doesn't mean the issue has gone away. While there are campuses in L.A. Unified where charter schools peacefully co-exist with the district's traditional schools, anxieties around co-locations run deep among both charter backers and district leaders. Interested parties on both sides seem convinced the other isn't approaching the process in good faith.

"This is a zero-sum game that is set up to create winners and losers," said school board president Steve Zimmer in an interview Monday. "Most often, it is the host district school that loses. They lose space, they lose students."

Charter advocates find it hard to believe that the district cannot find space on its campuses to co-locate charter schools, especially given the widespread construction of new schools across L.A. Unified and a decline in the district's enrollment.

"It only makes sense that … there would be facilities available to serve more charter students," said Jed Wallace, head of the California Charter Schools Association. "And what you find is when the courts get involved, when the arbitrators get involved, they find along those lines as well."

For instance, Pathways Community Charter School operates out of eight classrooms at an L.A. Unified high school site.

But teacher Jackeline Robles says the quarters are so tight, she began the year teaching her class of English language learners in a hallway. Later, her class grew to 12 students, and they found room for her in the back of another teacher's classroom.

“At least it was a classroom, but it was cramped, so we don’t know what’s the best part: cramped classroom, or out in the hallway where there’s a lot of noise,” Robles said after testifying at Tuesday's school board meeting.

But Huff said district officials no longer approach co-location as they did in 2007, when they declined to make a reasonable offer of space to Ivy Academia.

At the time, the district faced much greater space pressures than it does now, and the district has since acknowledged its failure to comply with the law. 

As a result, the heart of the arbitration with Ivy Academia focused on how much L.A. Unified ought to pay for this failure — and if so, how much.

Ivy Academia's attorneys had sought upwards of $24 million in damages; the district had argued Prop. 39 did not create a process for collecting damages at all. District attorneys also pointed out Ivy Academia's founders had ended up renting a building to the school, then profiting off the deal by hiking the rent by $25,000 a year — facts that would make them less likely to ever accept a Prop. 39 offer.

But Huff said now that the district has resolved many of the space issues that forced it to deny space to Ivy Academia between 2007 and 2010, L.A. Unified is able to fulfill its duties under Prop. 39 consistently.

"It’s very difficult to implement [Prop. 39], but the school district does it and it does it successfully," Huff said.