By Tina Richards
The Orange Unified School District (OUSD) Board of Trustees denied an application for a charter school primarily because the charter’s budget was based on best-case scenarios that presumed the facility would “get lucky.”

OUSD found that the school’s risky budget assumptions, with no leeway for unexpected expenses, could prevent Tomorrow’s Leadership Collaborative from delivering the educational program it promised.  The district asked the charter for an extension on its decision deadline, allowing more time to address unresolved issues, but the charter refused.

Tomorrow’s Leadership Collaborative Charter School (TLC) describes itself as “a TK/K-8th grade school that models best practices for inclusion education, university partnerships, and a constructivist, project-based learning approach with culturally relevant pedagogy to meet the needs of diverse learners.”

One for all
Roughly translated, TLC offers the same classroom experience to medically fragile and non-challenged students alike. Integrating all students into a common classroom increases the opportunity for disabled and non-disabled students to get to know, understand and accept one another. TLC plans to work with Chapman University Atallah College of Educational Studies to "stay current with research-based strategies for inclusive teaching and learning."  

TLC classrooms will each team a special needs teacher with a customary instructor, who will work together to keep all students on track for college or careers.  The school envisions strong collaboration between parents, teachers and students.

The public hearing, Jan. 8, attracted a roomful of parent advocates and supporters of TLC.  They told the board of similar schools that are thriving in L.A. County, the opportunities the concept presented for their special needs students, and the benefits of sending brothers and sisters – with and without disabilities -- to the same place.  They applauded the attention small classroom sizes would allow for individual students and the participatory nature of the environment.

A sound idea
The board was sympathetic, with several members agreeing that OUSD should enhance its own inclusionary efforts.  “We have an opportunity here,” Brenda Lebsack said in support of the charter.  “The school will draw people in.”

But the devil was in the details.  TLC principals had met extensively with OUSD attorneys to resolve issues and revise the charter application where appropriate.  The stumbling block was the budgeting, which the charter applicants were unwilling to change.

OUSD financial analysts thought the budget was too optimistic.  It assumed, for example, that enrollment would not include more expensive special needs students (those who need 1:1 aides), and that an existing school facility could be procured that did not require costly modifications (none has been identified).  TLC was unable to project the cost of “itinerant services” for special needs students, which OUSD has found to be the most expensive non-personnel-related cost schools face.  In addition, special needs students must receive a tri-annual assessment, which costs between $8,000 and $10,000 each.  That alone, OUSD determined, would wipe out TLC’s proposed $25,000 budget for itinerant services.

Unsound execution
The district determined that TLC’s optimistic financial forecasts created an “unacceptable” risk. 

“We have to look at the fiscal responsibility of what we’re presented,” Kathy Moffat said. “This school needs adequate resourcing.  We can’t send a charter into the community with an under-              resourced plan.  Now is the time to put this school on a trajectory for success.  Now is the time for conversation.  But we were given no flexibility.  The deadline is here, and I’m not comfortable.”

Board President Alexia Deligianni-Brydges asked if TLC would accept a provisional approval.  It would not.

The board voted, 5-2, to reject the TLC application, with Lebsack and Deligianni-Brydges in favor of giving the school “a chance to succeed in Orange.” 

TLC is planning to take its application to the Orange County Board of Education.

Citing shaky finances, OUSD board denies charter school application