In their own words

Most of us vote on election day to put people into public office but then unplug from politics and government until the next election cycle. I know people who spend a lot more personal time than I do attending school board or city council meetings.

scrutinyGovernment meetings are open to the public but few ordinary folk attend. Monitoring “the people’s business” is important and somebody needs to do it. 

The next best thing to attending a meeting of a public agency may be listening to audio recordings of meetings, and in some ways, may even be preferable.

If I attend a government meeting as a citizen observer, I might not be able to track all the details of a back-and-forth discussion, especially if I’m taking notes. With a good audio recording, I can listen at my leisure, reflect on points made, and as necessary, rewind and replay as often as I wish.

I particularly like the 3-hour recording of the Santa Clara County Board of Education’s October 2013 Charter Schools Study Workshop because the discussion seems honest, exploratory and unstructured. The seven members of the County Board, the Superintendent and his Staff seem genuinely free to express unvarnished personal views on “big questions” about charter law, charter petitions and the county board’s role.

In particular, I find this discussion among Area 7 Member Hover-Smoot, Superintendent De La Torre and Area 5 Member Song interesting because it sheds light on:

  • Differences of opinion between Members on Board practices
  • The Board’s relationship with the Superintendent and his Staff
  • The Board and Superintendent’s roles in reviewing charter petitions
  • The Board’s understanding of their flexibility around charter petition denials
  • How other county boards and superintendents handle charter petitions
  • How the Board’s policies and decisions impact relations with local school districts
  • How the Board advocates for charter approvals and sabotages charter oversight

Let’s have a listen.

hover-smoot

Here is a perspective from Member Hover-Smoot:

  • Personal philosophy aside, under the law, a county board has very limited discretion on charter approvals. It’s complicated and difficult NOT to approve a charter petition.
  • There are narrow grounds upon which a board may deny a charter petition, and if they want to deny, they must make written factual findings.
  • The Board’s hands are essentially tied. There’s no provision in law that allows a county Board to consider factors like the number of charter approved in the county.
  • *Member Song chimes in to point out that personal judgement already comes into play in the approval process, that approval rules aren’t ‘cut and dried’ and suggests that failing to apply discretion is irresponsible.

De_La_TorreNext, Superintendent De La Torre discusses how Santa Clara County is “very unique” and handles charter petitions very differently than other counties: 

  • Santa Clara County Board of Education is so pro-charter, wanting to be an active collaborator with, and resource for, charter petitioners, that they created an “Office of Innovative Schools” under the Superintendent to help develop and improve charter petitions that otherwise would be unapprovable.
  • The Superintendent “serves at the pleasure of” and takes direction from the Board, so when the Board says it wants to approve more charters, the Staff feels obligated to do what’s necessary to improve charter petitions to make them approvable.
  • In other counties, if a district board denies a charter petition and it gets appealed to the county board, the superintendent and board reviews the petition as-is, without any effort to further develop or improve it and without partnering with petitioners.
  • In other counties, the superintendent and county board apply the same standard of review used by a school district in order to protect its relationships with school districts in that county and avoid establishing adversarial charters.
  • In other counties, there is very limited or no fraternizing between county officials and charter petitioners because this could jeopardize impartiality and improperly influence a Board’s decision re: a charter petition pending before it.

songFinally, Area 4 Member Song describes how Santa Clara County Board Members’ direct relationships with charter petitioners undermines the Superintendent’s authority: 

  • When a county board establishes relationships with charter petitioners, it can undermine the ability of a Superintendent to negotiate sound operating agreements (MOUs) with charters and perform necessary and proper oversight
  • A charter operator that disagrees with a Superintendent’s operating constraints or oversight may strongly resist and ultimately prevail if the Board doesn’t stand behind the professional judgement and decisions of their Superintendent.

While I think it’s fair to characterize the Santa Clara County Board of Education overall as pro-charter, in this exchange we clearly hear Member Hover-Smoot staking out the more pro-approval stance that the Board has little to no ability to deny petitions while Member Song clearly thinks some judgement is warranted, especially in light of the changing landscape over the past ten years.

Superintendent De La Torre’s comments, informed by interaction with Superintendents from other California counties, seem to support Member Song’s position that county boards do, in fact, have great latitude in charter reviews, and many exercise the kind of discretion Member Song calls for. Certainly, De La Torre indicates that a county board’s standard of review can be as strict as that applied by a district board.

Notably, a big reason De La Torre cites for county boards to apply strict petition review criteria is to maintain good relations between a county board and the district boards.

But maintaining good relations with districts doesn’t seem very important to the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Listen to Steve McMahon, Chief Business Officer of the largest district in Santa Clara County react to hearing county Staff say they feel obligated to make new charters petitions approvable:

Current practice by the Santa Clara County Board of Education, described by Member Song at various points in the meeting, is to “unconditionally approve” charter petitions brought on appeal from districts using notoriously liberal review criteria, even in cases where the Superintendent and Staff may recommend against approval.

The Santa Clara County Board of Education pursues charter policies and mahpractices that are out of step with the mainstream among California counties, put them at odds with the traditional school districts in their region and even undermine their Superintendent.  I wonder what could possibly cause our County Board, under Board President Grace Mah, to take such a dramatically pro-charter posture.

Could it be donations to “Santa Clara County Schools PAC, Supporting Grace Mah and David Neighbors for County Board of Education and Opposing Anna Song 2012”?

SCCS PAC LA-LAH Donors 2012

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