A Clash of Allegiance

The Alameda school district plans to sue two charter schools, because they ousted a district appointee to their board of directors.



Gray Harris says charter schools need to be held to the same standards as regular schools.

Photo by Dave Strauss

The Alameda Unified School District is moving forward with litigation against Community Learning Center Schools, which operates two charter schools, Alameda CLC and Nea CLC, on the Island. The AUSD school board’s majority is upset that the charter schools recently ousted Jeff Cambra, an attorney the school board had appointed to sit on the charter schools’ board of directors.

In a recent interview, Alameda school board Vice President Gray Harris said charter schools, which depend on public funds to operate, should be held accountable to the same rules and standards as traditional public schools. “I wish their boards were all elected, and they should have to follow the same rules that others public agencies have to,” she said.

The dispute between the Alameda Unified School District and Community Learning Center Schools stems from a decision last fall by the AUSD board to exercise a little-used provision of state law that allows a school district to make appointments to the boards of directors of charter schools in the district’s jurisdiction. The AUSD board majority argued that the move would help charter schools in Alameda be more transparent and foster better collaboration between the district and charters.

“When you are a board member of a charter board, you have different interests,” Harris said during a public meeting at the time. “I want someone to act more as a neutral liaison. It should all be more transparent. We hear rumors. I say we try something new.”

AUSD Superintendent Sean McPhetridge added that the appointments have the “potential for us to move into a space of greater collaboration.”

In February, about a month after the Alameda school board appointed Cambra to CLCS’s board of directors, the charter schools removed him because of concerns that his allegiance was with the school district rather than charter school. CLCS board President Lisa Maxwell suggested that Cambra breached the confidentiality of, and his fiduciary duty to, the charter schools’ board. Maxwell referenced “an extensive email chain” between herself, Cambra, and CLCS Executive Director Patti Wilczek that Cambra forwarded to AUSD’s attorney. The emails, which were reviewed by Alameda Magazine, detail a disagreement between Cambra and CLCS over whether he should recuse himself from any private discussions relating to the charter school’s relationship with AUSD.

Photo by Dave Strauss

Patti Wilczek says CLCS’s relationship to the school district board can’t “get any worse.”

In response to Cambra’s ouster, the AUSD school board voted 3-1 on March 14 “to commence litigation” against CLCS. New board member Ardella Dailey, a former AUSD superintendent and a founding board member of The Academy of Alameda charter school, was the lone “no” vote.

The Alameda charter school battle parallels a long-simmering fight in California between advocates of traditional public schools and those of charter schools. For years, critics of charter schools have said they enjoy unfair advantages, because most of them are not required to abide by the state’s open meetings, public records, and conflicts of interest laws. Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown, a staunch advocate of charter schools, vetoed legislation that would have required all charter school boards to follow the same good government laws as regular public schools, saying the legislation went “too far in prescribing how these boards must operate.”

In Alameda, the school district and Community Learning Center Schools have clashed for years over space and student enrollment. The charter schools lease space from the district on Third Street in the West End, and the district has placed caps on the number of students that can be on the site, thereby blocking the schools’ expansion. (As part of its lease with the district, CLCS’s board meetings must comply with California’s open meeting law, the Brown Act). In an interview, CLCS’s Wilczek described the atmosphere between the school district board and the charter schools as “toxic.” She also contends that some current and ex-members of the AUSD board believe charters can’t be trusted.

Although state law allows local school districts to appoint board members to charter school boards, the law also states that once an appointee joins a charter school board, he or she must act in the best interests of the charter school—not the school district. Cambra said he understands that rule. “I have no preconceived notions about charter schools,” he said.

But Cambra disagreed with the determination of the CLCS board that he had to recuse himself from closed-door discussions of the charter school board concerning AUSD. “Initially, I was welcomed by Patty [Wilczek] and the other board members,” Cambra said. He said he recused himself from an initial closed-session discussion about his potential conflicts of interest as an AUSD appointee. Cambra declined to comment on the pending litigation, but added that he “never meant [his initial recusal] to be an acknowledgement of a conflict of interest.” He said he applied for the position because he believed the school district was “looking for someone with open government experience and expertise that could lend some guidance.”

Wilczek said that in the view of CLCS, any AUSD appointee would have an inherent conflict of interest that necessitates recusal from closed-session discussions involving the district. She noted that school districts in California “rarely, if ever,” make appointments to charter boards, arguing that it’s because the issue “is fraught with conflict.”

However, the AUSD board’s appointment to another Alameda charter school has yet to generate the same dispute that CLCS had with Cambra. In January, the AUSD board appointed Dennis Popalardo, who is also an attorney and was a school board candidate last year, to serve on The Academy of Alameda charter school’s board of directors. Academy of Alameda founding board member and former AUSD board member David Forbes confirmed that after Popalardo affirmed his duty to the charter school’s board, the charter school has not asked him to recuse himself from any private discussions regarding the district.

CLCS officials have told the school district that they would welcome a replacement appointment on their board. “We are open to seeing how it goes” with a different person, said charter school board president Maxwell. But it appears CLCS’ insistence that any nominee be recused from closed session items dealing with AUSD will keep the legal dispute alive. Wilczek said she doesn’t think the charter schools’ relationship with the school district “can get any worse.”

As for Harris, she believes charter schools should just join the school district and become regular public schools. Harris, who works for the California Teachers Association, is a past president of Alameda’s teachers’ union, and taught elementary school in Alameda for 10 years. She believes that there would be cost savings by bringing the charters into the fold, which could help all students. She pointed to the magnet school Maya Lin as one example of the district being able to provide educational choices to district families.

She said there is “no reason you have to set up a separate school district” for charter schools.

 

Published online on April 26, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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