LAUSD Abruptly Cracks Down On Charter Schools That Took District Classrooms, Then Didn't Use Them All

File: More than 250 students at South East High School, an L.A. Unified School District school in South Gate, protest the proposed co-location of a charter school on their campus on May 22, 2018. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

In Los Angeles' tough real estate market, the operators of charter schools have to make do with whatever classroom spaces they can find: hospital daycare centers, downtown office suites, even churches and former Hebrew schools.

Or they can simply claim space on an L.A. Unified School District campus.

A state law known as Prop. 39 requires California school districts to offer classrooms at a relatively modest cost to any charter school that asks for them — and in L.A., many charters do ask. Roughly one out of every five charter schools in the city is "co-located" on an LAUSD campus.

But recently — and abruptly — LAUSD officials have decided to crack down on co-located charter schools that over-estimated the amount of space they'd need.

On Tuesday, LAUSD leaders said they're demanding payment of hefty "over-allocation fees" from 41 co-located charter schools that, in the end, didn't enroll enough students to justify the number of classrooms the district gave them. The charters' Prop. 39 demands likely forced their "host" schools to give up classrooms dedicated for art, music, science or computer classes.

"Those classrooms were left empty, not used by anybody," said L.A. Unified School Board member Jackie Goldberg. "If I rent ... a two-bedroom apartment and only sleep in one bedroom, do I get to tell the owner of the apartment, 'I'm not paying for the other bedroom?' No."

The demand appears to be a sudden shift in LAUSD policy. At the school board's direction, LAUSD officials have been "defer[ring] enforcement" of the over-allocation policy. Until this month, the district hadn't penalized a charter school under the policy since 2012.

Now, LAUSD is demanding these 41 charters pay a collective total of $6.7 million in penalties, some of which date back to the 2016-17 school year.

'WE RECEIVED THE INVOICE YESTERDAY ... FOR AN OVER-ALLOCATION THREE YEARS AGO'

The demand caught many of the charter schools off-guard — including four schools that went before the school board Tuesday seeking to have their charters renewed: Libertas College Prep, Bert Corona Charter High School, Citizens of the World Charter School Hollywood and ISANA Octavia Academy.

Goldberg, board president Richard Vladovic, and board member Scott Schmerelson all signaled they might vote to block the renewals — putting the schools' futures at risk — if the leaders of these charters didn't pay up.

One charter school (Libertas) had already paid its penalty in full; the leaders of the other three schools said they were good for the money. That promise to pay was enough for Goldberg, Vladovic and Schmerelson to relent. The board voted to renew all four schools.

Still, the district's demand for payment appears to have sent some schools reeling.

Because of a snafu on LAUSD's end, the operators of ISANA Octavia Academy didn't receive an invoice — and learn that their school's renewal was suddenly in doubt — until the Friday evening before the fateful board meeting.

Barely an hour before Tuesday's meeting, ISANA CEO Nadia Shaiq emailed district officials to inform them that her school intended "to pay anything owed to the District in full in a timely manner."

"However," Shaiq wrote, "we received the invoice yesterday, not even 24 hours ago, for an over-allocation from 3 years ago" — so the school could not simply cut an $88,000 check and bring it to the meeting that afternoon. (LAUSD provided the email to KPCC/LAist through a public records request.)

Ebony Wheaton, who handles facilities issues for the California Charter Schools Association, agreed that, in principle, schools that owe over-allocation fees should pay them.

But Wheaton noted that, under the district's self-imposed policy, LAUSD officials have until Aug. 15 to demand payment for an over-allocation in the previous school year — and in this case, the district appears to have blown its own deadline.

She also objected to the district's linking the schools' renewals with their promises to pay these fees.

"This was not the appropriate forum or the process," Wheaton said.

School board member Nick Melvoin was more blunt: "It sounds a little extortive."

"I share the disappointment that in a time of fiscal restraint we haven't gotten this money," Melvoin said, but he suggested that the board should be working with charters to develop payment plans.

"My questions are: ... Were [these invoices] sent on time? Can they legally be part of the renewal process? Are they accurate?" Melvoin said. (Wheaton mentioned one charter school was initially told it owed upwards of $300,000, but LAUSD subsequently lowered its payment demand to something less than $100,000.)

'I'M NOT TRYING TO DO ANYONE HARM'

Goldberg acknowledged the district's own self-imposed Aug. 15 deadline had come and gone, but suggested the district needed to use the vote on a five-year renewal as leverage to ensure the district actually received money the charters owed.

"Are we going to ever revoke them after five years if they don't pay? Of course not," Goldberg said. "We're not going to do a revocation over them not paying, and they know that. And they know they've got four votes here tonight."

"I'm not trying to do anyone harm," Goldberg said. "But we have an underfunded district," the district appears to be owed money, "and I don't know how to get it.

"Maybe I sound a little bit alarmist about it, but I feel alarmist about it."

File: Maisha Riley, school leader at Community Preparatory Academy, a charter school, pulls from her trunk a stack of protest signs left along the fence of the L.A. Unified campus in Carson where they're co-located on May 6, 2016. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

CO-LOCATION CHAOS

Charters are publicly funded schools run mostly by nonprofit organizations, not school districts. Charters and districts are effectively competing for the same students, which has naturally fostered a rivalry between the two camps.

But no issue is the source of more day-to-day stress between LAUSD and its charters than co-locations. Disagreements over how much space LAUSD has offered under Prop. 39 has prompted the charter association to sue the district several times.

"Every time this board makes any effort to say, 'There are rules you must follow,' we get sued,'" Goldberg said.

Charter school critics — the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, chief among them — have for years pushed LAUSD to be more aggressive in collecting over-allocation fees.

In a 2016 policy paper, UTLA allies argued that money collected from these fees "could be reinvested into balancing out the stresses placed on co-located district schools."

In the future, Superintendent Austin Beutner said LAUSD would be more proactive in warning co-located charter schools that they're at risk of getting fined. If schools return underutilized classrooms to the district, they can avoid being hit with an over-allocation fee later.

Beutner also said district officials may offer fewer classrooms in the future to charters known to have requested too many classrooms in the past.

"Obviously," Beutner said, "a school that has overestimated in the past ... there must be something wrong there."