Old Towne balks at growing student population

By Tina Richards

The application of a charter school, with plans to serve 700 students, was rejected by Orange Unified, but later approved by the Orange County Department of Education, renewing Old Towne angst about a burgeoning student population that exceeds the capacity of the neighborhood infrastructure.

When Tomorrow’s Leadership Collaboration (TLC) charter school presented its application to OUSD last fall, it did not have a firm location.  It subsequently struck a deal with the First Christian Church of Orange, which had previously secured a conditional use permit for a 150-student school at 1130 E. Walnut.

Orange Unified rejected the school’s application in January, based on what it considered an unrealistic financial plan.  “We can’t send a charter school into the district with an under-resourced plan,” Trustee Kathy Moffat said at the time.  The district offered to work with the school’s management team to improve its financial planning, but that would have delayed the go/no-go decision, and TLC refused.  It appealed to the County Board of Education two days later.

Too close for comfort
At some point between OUSD’s denial and the county public hearing, TLC secured the Old Towne location from the church.  Chapman University appeared to be in the mix, and that’s what attracted the attention of Respect Orange, an Old Towne organization formed to preserve the quality of life in that area.  Respect Orange has had a tenuous relationship with Chapman University, chafed by students who rent in Old Towne and recurring plans to expand its student population, which will increase congestion in the neighborhood.

TLC’s charter application included numerous references to its “partnership” with Chapman’s Donna Attallah School of Educational Studies.  Respect Orange, already gearing up to oppose Chapman’s proposed 1,800 student expansion next year, was outraged that the university was attempting to bring even more students to town by partnering with TLC.  The proposed school site is next door to Cambridge Elementary (500-plus students) and proximate to Chapman (8,300-plus).  

When pressed by Respect Orange, Chapman issued a statement saying “the university is not a partner in the proposed TLC charter school.”  It did, however, note that “Chapman’s dean of the Attallah College of Educational Studies did submit a letter to the Orange Unified School District in October of 2017. While the letter does not serve as an official institutional endorsement from Chapman University, it does convey the support that Attallah College could offer.”

Sorry, we’re full
Chapman’s real or imagined relationship with the charter school was only one issue Respect Orange brought to the city council meeting, March 13.  Although the City of Orange has no jurisdiction over charter schools, Old Towne residents wanted to alert the council to the impact TLC would have on the area.  Residents appeared at the council meeting with a deluge of public comments.

“Respect Orange is opposed to the TLC charter, Adam Duberstein led off.  “It’s putting 700 more students near Chapman.  The community can’t absorb this.” 

Scott Resnick noted traffic issues in the neighborhood, with streets being nearly impassible during drop-off and pick-up times at Cambridge. 

Another speaker pointed out that “Walnut is a federal emergency corridor.  We can’t have any more traffic obstruction next to Cambridge.”  

Others noted the financial implications for district taxpayers.  Tim Surridge, an OUSD trustee, noted that the overall pool of students is shrinking, and taxpayer dollars given to a charter school further reduces what’s available to Orange Unified.  “We want the perception of public school to be high,“ he said.  “When you reduce the money available in the district’s general fund, programs must be cut.  This needs to be part of the community conversation.”

The street where we live
“I’m a taxpayer,” said William Shaw. “I resent the traffic impacts, and Chapman’s involvement is bad for those who live in the neighborhood.”  

“Local control is important to us,” said Lupe Gains.  “This school’s board appointees don’t have to live in the city; they don’t have to be accountable to us.” 

Orange High’s Michael Short took issue with TLC’s claim that it would be the only  “inclusionary” school (teaching disabled students alongside non-challenged students) in Orange County. “My classroom is a window of inclusion,” he said.  “We have the best special education teachers.  I’m concerned that people will think we’re not doing our job; I’m afraid we’re going to lose kids.”

The Orange City Council could do little more than listen. Councilman Mike Alvarez, however, did agree to send a letter of opposition to the county board. The County Department of Education heard the TLC appeal the next day.  Orange residents attended the hearing and restated their concerns.

Dial it down
“We’ve gotten more concerns from the public about this school than ever before,” Board Chairman David Boyd declared, “but traffic is beyond the scope of what we can do.”  

Something the board could consider, TLC’s assertion that Chapman was a partner versus the university’s statement that it wasn’t, was settled by a Chapman professor who attended the hearing.  He assured the board that the Attallah School was partnering with the charter, “it just wasn’t formalized yet.” 

TLC Director Jessica Tunney also stressed that neighborhood concerns about 700 students were unfounded, that the church site would house only 120.  The county board voted unanimously to “conditionally” approve Tomorrow’s Leadership Collaboration.  The conditions included revisions to its financial plan and a memorandum of understanding from Chapman. 

Respect Orange was not surprised by the approval.  “We’re putting the community on notice,” Duberstein summarized, “Old Towne is not going to quietly accept the university’s anticipated 1,800 student expansion plan.”