Education

Huntington Park: Tiny city becomes battleground in larger war over LA charter school expansion

Los Angeles Unified School District buses wait to pick up students.
Los Angeles Unified School District buses wait to pick up students.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC

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The turf war over the expansion of charter schools in the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District has found an unlikely new battleground that measures exactly 3.1 miles square: the tiny city of Huntington Park.

On Tuesday, city council members there will vote whether to extend a temporary, city-wide moratorium on building new charter schools through early September 2017 — a “timeout" that would give city planning officials an additional 10 months and 15 days to study whether and how to allow new campuses to locate in a small city already packed with 22 schools.

The conflict’s drawing attention from beyond Huntington Park's borders. Leaders of the powerful California Charter Schools Association are promising a huge turnout of fuming parents at the council’s Tuesday meeting.

Some moratorium opponents have even raised questions about whether the association’s chief political rival, L.A's largest teachers union, is behind the ordinance.

Mayor Graciela Ortiz said the ordinance does not stem from political opposition to charter schools.

In an interview, she said Huntington Park does not have enough parks, shopping centers or healthy grocery stores, but does have enough schools — and whether they're charter or district-run, she noted public schools don't generate sales tax revenues. After city officials received "a high number of inquiries" about possible charter school development, Ortiz said the city needed to research how to move forward.

"Our kids have options," Ortiz said. "So now we need to address other quality of life issues … We’re looking at ways of bringing in revenues and, more than anything, focusing on what our community wants and what our community needs."

Ortiz, who also works as a counselor at Linda Esperanza Marquez High School in Huntington Park, is a member of the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. But Ortiz said the union had no hand in crafting the ordinance. UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl also said union leaders were not involved in pushing the moratorium.

California Charter Schools Association leaders aren't buying Ortiz's explanation. Last month — days after city council passed an initial 45-day ban on new charter development by a 4-1 vote — CCSA attorney Ricardo Soto sent Huntington Park's city manager a letter saying the moratorium contradicts the state's charter school law.

In an interview this week, Soto said CCSA was considering legal action against the city if council members extend the moratorium any further.

"They have the ability to zone their community as they see fit as the council sets priorities. There’s no question about that," Soto said. "But they can’t do so in a way that undermines state education policy. That’s the purview of the legislature and state government."

Carlos Luis, a senior planner for the city of Huntington Park, said the moratorium was constitutional.

"Cities have the legal authority and duty to determine … what mix of land uses within specific zones are in the best interest of the city," Luis wrote in an email.

While Caputo-Pearl said UTLA was not involved in crafting the moratorium, he said the union was glad to see “growing awareness” of charter schools and their impacts on communities. He also questioned CCSA’s involvement in pushing back on the Huntington Park City Council.

“They want to make UTLA the boogeyman when the real problem is they’re not taking responsibility for making sure that charter schools are accountable,” Caputo-Pearl said.

CCSA officials have said they expect around 200 parents from Huntington Park charter schools to attend Tuesday's city council meeting. It would be a repeat of the Sept. 20 meeting, when a stream of parents from Huntington Park charter schools stood during the council's public comment period to voice their displeasure with the moratorium.

During that meeting, Ortiz and city officials responded that the city's over-abundance of schools was causing basic problems with traffic flow, parking and public safety. In one part of Huntington Park, three public schools — a middle school, an elementary school and a charter school — all share a stretch of narrow roadway. During before- and after-school pickup times, the streets become clogged.

But pro-charter parents who stood up to comment, like Nina Trujillo, said they felt the moratorium undermined the work charter schools were already doing in Huntington Park.

"It seems like it’s on their agenda already [and] doesn’t matter if as parents we show up or not," said Trujillo, whose daughter attends KIPP Comienza charter school in Huntington Park. "We’re still going to be there on Tuesday."

Does that mean she's she'll attend the meeting next week with low expectations?

No, Trujillo said. "I’m optimistic. God is big. I’m a very humble person and we know that sometimes you can have a change of heart."