Thursday, June 25, 2015

Controversial Oakland Charter School Gets Chilly Response in Quest for Classroom Space

By Doug Oakley
June 2015
OAKLAND -- A controversial charter school struggling to rid itself of a dubious management history is requesting classroom space from Oakland Unified School District, but it is facing resistance from parents, teachers and administrators.

A sign-waving group of teachers and students roared their approval Wednesday as the school board tabled a proposal to house 185 high school students from American Indian Model Schools in eight classrooms at Westlake Middle School on Harrison Street near Lake Merritt. 

And in late May, the school district rescinded an offer it made to the charter school for classrooms at Bella Vista Elementary School on East 28th Street after teachers and parents formed a group to oppose mingling the two groups of students. Teachers are still bitter over the fact that some of their best students were recruited away from the school to American Indian while the struggling students were rejected. 

The school district cited safety concerns related to a nearby park and the need to remove portable classrooms there in withdrawing the offer. 

"We received a written offer from them for Bella Vista, then at the last minute, they rescinded it," said American Indian school board President Steven Leung. "They offered us Westlake, but that's no good if people are protesting. It's another mess." 

Oakland school district spokesman Troy Flint said school groups oppose American Indian's request at Westlake because of the late-in-the-year decision for next school year, "opposition to charter schools on an ideological basis" and objections to sharing space. 

"We're legally obligated to find a place for them," Flint said. "They are public school students and they deserve a home that is suitable and conducive to a high-quality education." 

School board President James Harris said Wednesday night that "staff needs to do more due diligence on the relocation of American Indian Model Schools." 

Although Superintendent Antwan Wilson, who started a year ago, is an unequivocal supporter of charter schools, there is still bad blood between the two institutions. 

The school district in 2013 revoked American Indian's charter after a state audit found former director Ben Chavis siphoned off about $3.6 million from the school in contracts to companies he owned. Chavis left in early 2013. The school fought the charter removal in court and won reinstatement in 2014. 

But with a new superintendent who came from the Oakland Unified School District and new school board members, the school is trying to get out from under Chavis' influence. The school has been paying Chavis $46,000 a month to rent classroom space in three buildings on 35th Avenue but has given notice it will move out at the end of the month. 

The school also paid Chavis $7.5 million in 2014 to buy a separate building on 12th Street in downtown Oakland that it had been renting from him for years. 

Flint didn't rule out a final decision to house American Indian students at Westlake because the school can hold about 800 students and there are only about 400 there now. 

"They have some space in a section of the building that would be separate, and there are some portables in the back lot," Flint said. "There is plenty of room, and it won't be intrusive. And American Indian students are in high school, so there won't be a competition for students." 

At Wednesday night's school board meeting, middle school students and parents at Westlake talked of being "disappointed and disrespected" by the district's proposal, and they complained about possible overcrowding and "having our community ripped apart" by the move. 

"I'm not anti-charter; I'm just pro Westlake," said teacher Mary Prime-Lawrence. "These kids deserve our full attention." 


Teacher Randy Porter complained that the two groups "would be on top of each other" and that the school district wouldn't have floated the proposal if its staff "walked through and actually saw how we use this building." 

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