ORANGE—The politically conservative trustees of the Orange Unified School District, who considered turning most of their campuses into charter schools just two years ago, have made clear that local control has its limits.
The trustees defined some of those parameters late Thursday night when they voted, 6 to 1, to reject a plan by Jordan Elementary, which serves a mostly low-income neighborhood, to become a charter school.
Although the trustees cited a variety of concerns, the overriding reason for their vote was a refusal by Jordan administrators to promise to drop bilingual instruction. The trustees are determined to cease Spanish-language instruction in the district and had just finished an emotional hearing on the matter when the charter issue came to a vote.
The controversy threw some light on what exactly constitutes “local control,” a concept that the Orange Unified trustees have trumpeted as being of paramount importance to public education.
Trustees have been attracted to the 1992 state legislation allowing some schools to form their own charters. Those schools would still receive state financing, but be free to develop their own curriculum, manage their own finances and even hire teachers without standard credentials.
Released from guidelines handed down by their boards of education and the state Education Code, these new schools would be run by boards made up of parents, staff and administrators.
But Orange district officials stressed Thursday that independence was only meant to go so far.
“A charter school works independently, but that does not mean it can take off in a totally different direction from the general philosophy of the school district,” said Supt. Robert L. French. “The school board represents this community, and this bilingual issue is a very critical matter at this point. We’ve been inundated with calls and letters supporting that point.”
Kit Dameron, principal of Jordan Elementary, said she was disappointed by the trustees’ decision. She and her staff will consider whether to try again with a modified charter.
“My concern is that if we are going to write a charter, I want local control,” she said. “If the school board puts too many restrictions on it, we’ll lose that.”
The trustees, hesitant to vote down a concept they have heavily promoted, encouraged Dameron to rework some provisions and come before the board again.
Trustees said they were also disturbed that the charter did not require enough parental commitment to volunteer service, a hallmark of charter schools, and they cited other issues involving the faculty.
Mostly, they added, the whole thing was moving too fast.
“I believe this charter is premature,” said Trustee Robert H. Viviano.
Trustee Maureen Aschoff insisted that the contentious bilingual issue was not the only reason for voting against the proposal. The charter’s provisions for assessment testing, parental involvement and the means of achieving English language fluency all seemed weak, she said.
“We need to work on it a little bit more,” Aschoff said.
Trustee Bill Lewis, who cast the sole vote in favor of the charter, said the decision made the board look hypocritical. “I think we have to be consistent with our beliefs about charter schools,” he said.
The county has only one charter school, Santiago Middle School. Its charter was approved by the same school board that turned Dameron down Thursday night.