Charter renewed amid school board shift
on December 12, 2018
The charter of Benito Juarez Elementary was renewed by default last Wednesday because of a strange scenario in which incoming board members were unable to vote and one longstanding school board member stepped away from the dais, leaving the decision without enough votes to legally stand.
California charter schools must have their charter reapproved every five years, and Benito Juarez’s renewal was in question because its parent organization, Amethod Public Schools, recently came close to having its charter for John Henry High School revoked by the West Contra Costa Unified School Board.
The unusual voting situation unfolded at the meeting because of a state law requiring new member terms to start the first Friday of December, which this year was Dec. 7. This left the board with only three votes, meaning that any action by the board would require a unanimous decision.
As a result, new board members Stephanie Hernández-Jarvis and Consuelo Lara, and returning board president Valerie Cuevas, were ceremonially sworn onto the board, but they didn’t officially take up their new positions.
This previously unknown rule severely impacted the meeting: recently elected board members, aside from Cuevas, were unable to vote. Board member Madeline Kronenberg was present, unlike member Elizabeth Block, but she abstained from voting because both she and the public had no expectation that she’d be voting on the charter renewal.
Every item requiring action was pushed to the Dec. 12 meeting, except for the vote on the charter renewal. This was because of an earlier agreement with Amethod that the issue be decided on by Dec. 5, the date of the meeting.
The school board staff-suggested action was approval of the charter, but with seven conditions that would have had to been carried out by Amethod. They included a description of new charter school requirements, a written program for meeting the needs of its underachieving English-learning students, a report on attracting student populations reflective of the district (the school is almost entirely Latino), documentation on why certain comparison schools were used in their presentation, a signed and dated copy of their corporate bylaws, and copies of all financial reports and information included in their staff report.
The seventh condition was an agreement addressing the district’s safety concerns related to John Henry High School.
In October, John Henry underwent a board hearing on whether the school’s charter should be revoked, which would have effectively caused it to shut down. This was largely because of an alleged mandated reporting violation by Evelia Villa, wife of Amethod CEO Jorge Lopez and currently the Amethod superintendent of Richmond schools. After a student complained of abuse at home, Villa allegedly asked them to take their shirt off to check for bruises. She also allegedly cited this incident while encouraging other teachers to investigate claims before reporting during an Amethod professional development event held prior to the 2017-2018 school year.
After hundreds of Amethod shirt-clad students and staff poured into the hearing, and Amethod staff presented findings which indicated that the alleged violation had occurred in 2012, three years before John Henry had come into existence, the charter was not revoked. The district placed the school in good standing on Oct. 31.
Board member Mister Phillips made a motion to accept Benito Juarez’s charter unconditionally, without any of the staff recommendations. He argued the school had been performing well and that the board had unfairly targeted Amethod.
“Every time this school comes before us we seem to put one more hurdle in front of them for them to jump,” Phillips said at the meeting. “And when they jump it we put another one in front of them.”
“They are doing a good job. They are doing a good job relative to most schools.”
Cuevas followed by moving that the board vote on renewing the charter with all conditions, which was followed by a substitute motion by board member Tom Panas to accept the renewal with only the first six conditions.
At this point, Lopez shook his head at Phillips, according to Cuevas.
Phillips checked publically with school attorney Edward Sklar to make sure the legal result of a failed vote was an automatic charter renewal, then walked away from the dais.
He was counted as absent, and a motion to approve the charter with six of seven conditions failed 2-0-3. Cuevas and Panas voted to approve the motion, Kronenberg abstained and Phillips and Block were counted as absent.
Phillips took his seat again to vote on his motion, to approve the charter unconditionally, which failed 2-1-2, with Cuevas voting against and Panas and Phillips voting to approve.
Phillips said he left the room because he thought the test score comparisons made during a presentation at the meeting by district staff between Benito Juarez and other charter schools within the district were illegal—comparisons should have instead been made to the district public schools, Phillips said, which students are required by law to attend.
Phillips said he believed the comparison with other charter schools, which generally perform better than public schools, were likely done to make Benito Juarez look worse. This, in turn, would provide justification for approving the recommended staff conditions attached to the charter renewal.
He also said he believed that if he’d stayed and voted against Panas’s item, Panas and Cuevas would have had a quorum—meaning they’d have a 2-1 majority on the sitting board—and it would have passed. By leaving, he argued, two votes would not have been enough to pass a motion.
According to Cuevas and Panas, the board would have needed three yes votes regardless; it made no difference whether Phillips abstained or voted against the motion.
Cuevas was critical of Phillip’s approach.
“When I took an oath to office, there’s an expectation that we take votes, “Cuevas said. “So many people wanted a seat and they would’ve taken a vote tonight.”
Cuevas said that the entire board has an oversight responsibility that goes beyond just school performance. She said she wanted to pass the renewal, but with at least some of the conditions.
“I do think some of these are warranted,” Cuevas said. “You get your renewal. I have a hard time voting yes on the renewal without the conditions that are being put forth.”
When pressed by Cuevas about perceived disagreement with the staff conditions, Lopez said he agreed with Phillips’ opinion about the oversight of his school.
Shortly after Amethod’s representatives left the room, United Teachers of Richmond president Demetrio Gonzalez criticized Phillips for his actions. He called Phillips’ move of walking away from the vote “political theatre at its worst” and argued that Phillips should be equally hard on charter schools as he is with district schools. Gonzales also said he hoped the new trustees didn’t take Phillip’s actions as representative of the district.
“I’ve missed five board meetings in five years, and I’ve never seen anyone step out because they’re not getting their way,” Gonzalez said.
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