Friday, July 12, 2013
S. C. Upholds State’s Process for Revoking School Charters
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court yesterday upheld the statutory procedures for revoking public school charters.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, in her opinion for a unanimous court, agreed with this district’s Court of Appeal, which ruled in favor of school authorities two years ago.
The high court held that county boards of education and other chartering entities may revoke those charters on the basis of evidence not presented at the statutorily mandated public hearing, as long as the school operator is apprised of the evidence and allowed to respond. The justices also rejected the argument that county boards have an incentive to revoke charters, in order to see money reallocated to other schools, and that this renders the process unfair.
The high court’s ruling allows the Los Angeles County Office of Education to revoke the charter of Crenshaw-based Today’s Fresh Start, a nonprofit school whose charter was granted by the county in 2003 and renewed in 2005.
In June 2007, LACOE advised the school that it planned to investigate a number of complaints, including that the school was violating legal rights of students, parents and employees; that its attendance procedures were deficient, and that it was violating state testing protocols.
A month later, the county office said it had identified several deficiencies, which it demanded the school correct. A public hearing before the county Board of Education was scheduled for November of that year to consider possible revocation if the corrections were not made.
Several individuals associated with the school, including six students, spoke at the hearing, as did then-Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, who is now deceased. At a subsequent board meeting, the school’s counsel complained that the revocation procedures violated due process due to the lack of an impartial adjudicator; the close relationship between LACOE, which initiated the process and had recommended revocation, and the board; and the lack of opportunity to respond to some of the office’s criticisms.
Shari Kim Gale, general counsel for LACOE and the board, explained that under the Charter Schools Act, the county board acts as the chartering authority, the superintendent of schools and LACOE act as advisors to the board, the board decides whether to revoke the charter, and if the board votes to do so, the school may appeal to the State Board of Education.
The state board, not the county board, is the “neutral” adjudicator, Gale explained, while the county board, having issued the charter and being responsible for overseeing LACOE, which monitors the school’s compliance with charter requirements, is “not neutral.” The process, Gale opined, was “entirely legal.”
At a subsequent meeting, a representative of LACOE’s Charter School Office presented a final report concluding that the school had not corrected the deficiencies, despite being given reasonable opportunities to do so.
While supporters argued that the school was making progress and should be given at least another year, then-county Superintendent of Schools Darline Robles said the school had resisted efforts to investigate its operations. School officials sought to blame the impasse on LACOE, saying it had refused to confer with them on how the investigation should be conducted, while Robles said it was up to LACOE to determine its own investigative procedures, independent of any dispute resolution process.
The board voted 4-3 to revoke the charter. The school appealed to the State Board of Education, which upheld the revocation on a tie vote.
Trial Court Ruling
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant, in granting the school’s petition for a writ of administrative mandate, held that the county violated due process by considering matters not presented at the public hearing, and by not affording it a separate evidentiary hearing.
But Justice Frank Johnson, writing for Div. One of the Court of Appeal, said the county followed the Charter Schools Act, and that the act’s procedures satisfy constitutional due process concerns.
Werdegar, writing yesterday for the high court, agreed.
The claim that the county’s board of education and office of education have a conflict of interest because they operate schools themselves was unsupported by the record, the justice said. She explained that LACOE operates only a few specialized schools, primarily high schools, while Today’s Fresh Start provides kindergarten through eighth grade schooling.
She also distinguished earlier cases finding a denial of due process based on conflicts of interest on the part of adjudicators—noting those holdings all involved personal financial interests, not the interests of a public entity—and said “Today’s Fresh Start has pointed to nothing in the statutory scheme that would create an incentive for the County Board or individual board members to favor one public school over another in discharging the duty to promote beneficial educational opportunities for all students in the county.”
Nor did the various roles served by Gale and Robles in the process deprive the school of its right to a fair determination of the issues, the justice said, because neither of them were voting members of the board. Nor did Gale perform the role of “prosecutor,” Werdegar said, because she did not present evidence or argue in favor of revocation, instead performing the role of legal adviser.
Werdegar also rejected the argument that Gale’s remark about the county board being “not neutral” constituted an admission of bias.
“In context, it is apparent Gale was arguing not that the County Board was partial, but that its relationship with its own staff was not that of a neutral adjudicator presiding over an adversarial hearing, and thus the board was not prohibited from ex parte contacts with staff members, who were acting as advisors rather than as distinct party-advocates,” the justice explained. “In that estimation, she was correct.”
Arguing before the high court were Michael M. Amir of Doll Amir & Eley for the school and Alison M. Turner of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland for LACOE and other defendants.
The case is Today’s Fresh Start, Inc. v. Los Angeles County Office of Education, 13 S.O.S. 3503.
Copyright 2013, Metropolitan News Company