By Tina Richards

The Orange Unified School Board accepted the petition from OC Classical Academy (OCCA) to join the district as a charter school, wrapping up a contentious Dec. 14  public meeting that lasted well into the wee hours.

Board members John Ortega, Rick Ledesma, Alexia Deligianni-Brydges and Brenda Lebsack voted to approve the charter petition; Kris Erickson, Andrea Yamasaki and Kathy Moffat voted to reject it.

OCCA plans to build a curriculum around classical Western European texts, the Bible and Latin. It is modeled after a K-12 plan created by Hillsdale University, a private Christian school in Michigan. Charter schools, although independent from state and local boards, are public schools open to all children and supported by taxpayer dollars. They operate under contract with, and are overseen by, a local district that authorizes them based on state-defined criteria.

A shaky start
OUSD staff recommended denying the OCCA petition based on a number of reported flaws. “The petition is a reflection of the school creators’ financial acumen, understanding of requirements, thoroughness and consistency,” the staff report noted. The school’s curriculum, staff reviewers found, did not meet state standards; there was no plan or funding for special needs students; the petition presented two separate budgets, neither meeting the needs of OCCA’s operational plan.  

There was an inadequate description of the school’s governance structure; no marketing plan to build enrollment; a below-market pay scale for teachers, with no credentials required or qualifications spelled out.  The school’s facilities were not described, because it doesn’t have any.

The 4-3 board approval followed two-plus hours of public testimony that covered politics, the failings of the state’s educational system, the inadequacies of OUSD, the value of parental choice, the pros and cons of sex education, the teachers union, the backgrounds of the school’s founding team and the integrity of board members themselves. Few of the 60 public speakers addressed OCCA’s merits specifically, using their three minutes at the microphone to praise charter schools in general, denigrate the public school system or paint the charter and its creators as a drain on OUSD resources.

Political spin
Republican Central Committee Chairman Fred Whitaker was on hand to impel a “yes” vote, as were two individuals running for Congress in districts not related to OUSD. The local teachers union president Greg Goodlander pushed for a “no” as did OUSD teachers, students and parents.

OCCA supporters, many from other school districts, cited the need for charter schools to balance the tyranny of public schools. “Everything wrong in America is due to public schools,” one OCCA advocate asserted. “People are leaving the state because they can’t get into good schools here,” said another.  

Several speakers noted OUSD’s shortcomings, which included low test scores and a teachers union that “cared about its own self-interests, not students.” 

Charter opponents argued that parents wanting “choice” could already find it in OUSD, that it teaches the classics, offers language immersion programs, and meets the needs of a diverse student population. 

Several students countered the claims made by a few OCCA advocates that they were introduced to sex toys and pornography as part of the state’s "Healthy Youth" curriculum. “There were no toys or pornography in class,” one said. “I would certainly remember that.”

Night owls
The charter school debate was preceded on the agenda by two hours of other business. It didn’t get underway until almost 9 p.m., and the board discussion didn’t begin until after 11 p.m. John Ortega, named board president earlier that evening, started the proceedings by motioning to approve the charter petition. Rick Ledesma offered a quick second.  

Ortega advised that, “you have to look at the evidence in front of you and put it in context.” He took issue with the charge that OCCA was “teaching religion.” “We teach religion in public schools,” he offered, “it’s nothing new.” He also noted that OCCA had provided rebuttals to the staff report that would fix the identified problems, and “that was evidence to be considered.”

Deligianna-Brydges agreed that the rebuttals were satisfactory. She cited a shift in state education from literature to informational texts and liked that OCCA planned to focus on classical material and Latin.  

Lebsack, calling education a “big tent,” said there was room for choice. “This is a fabulous program,” she asserted. “It is not parochial, it’s conservative. Education should not be monopolized. That’s why we have capitalism.”

Cut to the chase
Kathy Moffat addressed the charter petition as it stood. “There are deficiencies in special ed,” she noted. “They will have to accept special ed students, but they have no budget or plan to accommodate them. Their focus is on Western Judeo-Christian values. The education code does not give permission to teach religion in public schools. These petitioners are not educators, but ideologues. The application is an affront to the idea of charters.”

She concluded her comments by decrying the “intense pressure” placed on the board prior to the meeting by “high-ranking partisan officials.”

Andrea Yamasaki also expressed alarm at the political spin. “People are drawing lines based on ideology or political party,” she said. “I didn’t come to this board for politics. I’m a parent. I have concerns, not because this is a charter, but because of what it is. Our staff spent 500 hours looking at this. There are problems here that can’t be ignored.”

“This is a big deal,” Kris Erickson declared. “Our decision will impact taxpayers and our credit rating. This school is a fiscal nightmare, a curriculum nightmare.” She noted that the two county-sanctioned charters in OUSD were having financial problems. One of them overestimated enrollment and now has to repay $200,000 in state money to OUSD.   

About-facing facts
Ledesma dismissed Erickson’s comments, noting, “The flaws in the proposal are opinion. Staff did not make the right assumptions. The staff report is one-sided.” 

Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen suggested that if the board wanted to approve the charter, it should do so conditionally, to allow the flaws in the petition to be corrected.

Ledesma did not think a conditional approval was necessary, citing the district’s ultimate oversight and the modifications OCCA had offered in its rebuttal. He asked attorneys for the district and the school to work things out then and there. Instead, the OCCA attorney advised that OCCA would not accept a conditional approval, that it would rather be denied so it could appeal to the Orange County Department of Education.

Ledesma announced that he didn’t want to “lose them” and that a conditional approval was off the table.

Rush to judgment
“I’m trying to protect the district and our students,” Hansen responded. “The charter does not align with state standards.”

“Does that matter?” Ledesma challenged. The superintendent read aloud from the education code to explain why it mattered. Ledesma was unswayed, referring again to OCCA’s rebuttal, the modifications contained therein, and his belief that everything could be corrected via OUSD oversight. “Let’s approve this as is and move into oversight,” he said.

Erickson, an attorney, attempted a crash course in contract law. “The rebuttal is not a legal document,” she explained. “They can promise anything, but they are not bound by it. They are bound only by what’s written within the petition. It’s the contract. If the board approves the petition as written, then that’s what you get.”

Just after 1 a.m., the board voted, 4-3, to accept the charter petition as submitted.

OUSD board approves charter school despite inherent flaws and negative public opinion

January 2020