November 2019

Charter school seeking entry into OUSD

By Tina Richards

A charter school, the Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), submitted a second application to the Orange Unified School District Board of Trustees, Oct. 17, after withdrawing its first petition just one week after the board formally received it.

The academy is modeled after a concept advanced by Hillsdale College, a private school in Michigan. Hillsdale's “Barney” school curriculum is based on classical literature, religious texts and the study of Latin. It stresses “prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude” and the “pillars of character,” that include responsibility, citizenship and honesty.

OCCA founding team members, Mark Bucher and Jeff Barke, retracted the first application, because, in the eyes of several OUSD board members, it was “misleading” at best, and lacking “honesty” at worst. In the academy’s original application, it reported an affiliation with Hillsdale, the Barney School and Chapman University. Its marketing literature noted that academy students would be given “priority for admittance and scholarships to Chapman.”

School of hard knocks
Trustee Kris Erickson had queried Chapman President Daniele Stupa about the affiliation, and was told, via email, that he had one meeting with the school’s founders, and that no relationship existed. While there is a Chapman professor on the OCCA board, Strupa stressed that the faculty member was involved with the academy “as an individual” and did not represent the university.

That inaccurate claim raised concerns among OUSD trustees, who then questioned the claimed “affiliation” with Hillsdale and the understanding of the parents who had signed the OCCA petition, indicating they would be interested in enrolling their children. Board members Kathy Moffatt, Andrea Yamasaki and Erickson all wondered aloud if the largely Spanish-speaking signatories were led to believe the academy was an entryway into Chapman. 

The original application was withdrawn in response to questions raised during the Sept. 26 public hearing on the charter. “We listened to your concerns that parents might have been misled by our advertised relationship with Chapman,” Jeff Barke told the board, “so we started over.  The sections talking about our relationship with Hillsdale and Chapman now say they are not fixed yet. We removed mention of them from our marketing material.  You were also concerned about the signatures, so we collected another 360.”  

Mea culpa
The new language notes that the academy “intends” to have affiliations with Hillsdale, the Barney School and Chapman.

Kris Erickson was not assuaged, noting that the academy was an extension of the California Policy Center and its website continues to tout priority admittance and scholarships to Chapman. “And, I still have a problem with the Barney School representation,” she said. "It appears everywhere in your presentation.”

Barke explained that the academy does have permission to use Barney School curriculum, but a formal affiliation couldn’t be established yet because, technically, the academy doesn't exist. As far as the Chapman relationship, he reported, academy founders had many meetings with Chapman, and it too, could not formalize an affiliation until the academy is chartered.

“Are you sure you had numerous meetings with Chapman?” Erickson asked. “I had lunch with President Strupa yesterday, and he said you had just one. [He said] that it was generic in content, and that it would take Chapman six to nine months to pour over the details and make a decision.”

Who’s counting
Barke stuck to the story, saying they had met with “others” at Chapman, and that Strupa had approved the revised language about the university in the second application.

“We just got out over our skis,” Barke said. “We were enthusiastic, confident that a relationship would be formalized. We were excited and may have overstated it, but we did not intend to mislead you.”

Erickson indicated that she felt misled. “It’s a matter of trust,” she said, suggesting that the reason for the modified language in the second application was because the academy team had been caught in a lie in the first one.

Kathy Moffat was also shy in the trust category, questioning who circulated the petition and what the parents who signed it had been told.  “What did they think your mission was?” she asked Mark Bucher. 

Chartered territory
Bucher told her that the signature-gatherers were volunteers or paid employees of the California Policy Center. “I don’t know what they said,” he reported. “We put together the literature, and that was the primary info.”

Orange Unified has 60 days to review the application and make a decision to either accept or deny it.  The last two charters to apply to OUSD were denied, based on unrealistic financials and attendance projections. Both of those schools applied to the county Department of Education and were approved.  

On the other hand, OUSD has been home to two successful charter schools – Santiago and El Rancho Middle Schools – for many years.

“Our decision is not a referendum on whether charter schools are good or bad,” Kris Erickson summarized. “We have to determine if this is a good product.”