Orange County School Of The Arts Is Trying To Get Its Charter Renewed — But There's Drama

The Orange County School of the Arts invited prospective students to check out the campus at a "Preview Day" on December 7, 2019. (Carla Javier/KPCC)

The Orange County School of the Arts in downtown Santa Ana has existed in a state of mostly peaceful coexistence with the Santa Ana Unified School District for almost 20 years — but now, things are getting tense.

The district "has demonstrated that it does not deserve our trust, nor is it a reliable, well-intentioned partner in support of educational excellence for OCSA's students," OCSA wrote in a press release issued Wednesday.

That's just one small indication of how bitter relations between OCSA and the Santa Ana school district have gotten. The Santa Ana Unified School District's board has to consider whether to renew the art school's charter every five years. In the past, that hasn't been a problem for SAUSD officials but this time around the charter renewal process has been dramatic.

RAW EMOTIONS

Emotions were already raw after OCSA filed a lawsuit against the district last spring over special education funding. Then, later in the year, came detailed district reports calling out OCSA practices. SAUSD staff said some of OCSA admissions practices and its funding model, which relies heavily on parent contributions, could discourage Santa Ana's more disadvantaged students from attending the arts school which is famous for its high graduation rates and notable alumni in the entertainment industry.

Still, Santa Ana Unified's board did approve the charter renewal last month, but with the condition that OCSA makes changes to address the criticisms in the reports.

"It's bullying. It's harassment," said OCSA founder and executive director Ralph Opacic. "We've enjoyed a collaborative, positive, open relationship with Santa Ana Unified School District for 19 1/2 years, and that all changed."

For its part, SAUSD officials say the stepped-up scrutiny of OCSA isn't harassment, but oversight — a responsibility of all charter authorizers.

"I know the charters don't always like it," said Alfonso Jimenez, SAUSD's deputy superintendent for educational services. "Because past practice has been here that pretty much the charters were left alone."

A TICKING CLOCK

OCSA's current charter runs out in July. With the clock ticking, the school is turning to the Orange County Department of Education to see if its board will authorize OCSA's charter for the next five years instead.

At a Jan. 8 Orange County Board of Education meeting, attorneys for both sides debated in front of a confused board of trustees. The school argued a conditional renewal amounts to a denial. On the other side, district staff insisted that since it wasn't a denial, the school still has to work with the district as its authorizer.

The county board will take up the matter at an upcoming board meeting.

We'll continue following this story. In the meantime, I want to hear from people who have experiences with the school. Whether you attended and love the school, or you applied but didn't get in, I want to hear from you.

You can email me or fill out the form below. I read everything, but nothing is shared without your permission.