Charter considers options

Board explores pursuing merger

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Charter considers optionsMembers of the Ridgecrest Charter School Board of Directors met Thursday night to update parents on the outcome of last week’s meeting in Sacramento of the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, which voted 5-1 to uphold the committee recommendation to deny the RCS charter.

When the RCS charter came up for renewal this year, Sierra Sands Unified School District declined to carry the charter, citing declining test scores. So far, that denial has been repeated at the committee and commission level, with those bodies citing scores that are lower overall when compared to SSUSD averages. The final decision for the fate of RCS is expected to be made when the California State Board of Education meets March 13-14.

RCS Board President Eric Bruen outlined the three concurrent options the board is pursuing — requesting Sierra Sands Unified School District to reveal its plan for incorporating RCS students in the event of a closure, continuing to work with legislators and state officials to facilitate a reversal of the action and attempt to continue operations by merging with an existing charter school.

For the first option, Bruen said, “I believe that every parent and every student needs to have some idea of what would happen in the event of a closure. We are implying that because we care about our students. It’s not because we want this to happen, but because we don’t want to see any child hurt in this process.”

Bruen added that RCS officials continue to “work the petition” in Sacramento. “I can assure you there are action steps we have taken with our legislators and the administration of the state board of education. We have not stopped there.”

He thanked advocates who sent letters of support to decision-makers, and encouraged parents and other supporters to continue doing so.

“We have the engagement of Assemblymember [Vince] Fong in a major way. We also have the engagement of Congressman [Kevin] McCarthy’s office. And we intend to engage as many people as we can, but it is an uphill battle.

“I cannot promise that all the legislative efforts will result in the results we want. We certainly went into it with that hope on Tuesday and were bitterly disappointed.”

Beginning the process to seek a merger partner for RCS “would give the ability for RCS to transfer its assets and its academics to another charter school, which would allow the school to remain open come the fall semester. However, in that process the RCS we know and love would be no more,” said Bruen.

“We are still fighting in Sacramento,” said Dr. David Martinez, RCS principal. He said that administrators continue to refine their argument, though “we felt we had a good, strong argument on Tuesday.

“There are a lot of factors involved. Many of them we can’t control,” said Martinez.

“This is a political process.”

Boardmember Ray Miller questioned the format of the state meeting, which allows only 10 minutes to present the case and 60-second testimonies from parents and other supporters.

“How do you present a case that’s understandable even to experienced educators in under 10 minutes? The only way we can win anything is to go to the decision-makers and have enough time to sit down and really explain the situation.”

Miriam Hogg, a school employee, expressed concern over the apparent lack of engagement of the commission.

“Those commissioners had an opportunity to ask questions and engage, but maybe one to two questions were asked,” said Hogg. “So, we were feeling like maybe they would want to know more. Like, ‘Ask us more so we can tell you more.’ But we kind of walked away with a feeling as though maybe a decision had already been made.”

Bruen told listeners that he addressed his concerns at the city council’s Feb. 6 meeting and also attempted to read his remarks into the record at a Feb. 6 SSUSD special meeting, but was told there was no public comment on the agenda.

“First of all, why would we not be allowed to talk to Sierra Sands in public comment?” asked boardmember Chip Holloway. “The whole purpose of public comment is to discuss items that are not on the agenda.”

When this reporter reached out to SSUSD officials, they noted that, though this week’s meeting was publicly noticed, it was not a regular meeting but a special workshop. Superintendent Ernie Bell said that although the district is not required to include public comment for unrelated items in these special meetings, “I am sure the board would have heard Mr. Bruen if he had arrived at the beginning of the meeting. By the time he arrived, we were in the middle of presentations and there was not a real opportunity to break away from the business at hand.”

Holloway also asked why Sierra Sands was not at the Sacramento meeting. Bell also responded to that inquiry for an earlier report, stating that the board directed staff not to send one. Bell said that the district wanted to maintain a neutral position, and not to influence the commission’s decision.

Commissioners voted 5-1 to uphold a previous committee’s recommendation to deny the charter. When the state board meets, RCS would need the support of six members to continue their charter. Martinez noted, however, that there are four vacancies on the 11-member board — leaving potentially only seven to hear their testimony next month.

“If anyone doesn’t know, we are in the worst place we could possibly be in the state of California,” said Holloway, presumably referring to the conservative demographics in a state under Democratic control.

“The [elected officials] we look at to help us the most, frankly, are the least helpful in this situation. Not to be negative. The hold-your-nose strategy of a merger is probably the best strategy.”

He asked Bruen if there was any chance SSUSD officials would change their minds about carrying the RCS charter, potentially influencing the state decision in favor of continued operations.

“I cannot state for record or fact, but I’m pretty sure if they walked up to the state board and said, ‘You know, after reconsideration we’d love to have them be a part of our school district,’ they probably would streamline to make that happen rather than close the school,” said Bruen. “But I also believed Jesus Christ walked this earth, and it was 2,000 years ago. It ain’t going to be tomorrow.”

“Don’t bring Jesus Christ into this – we need Jesus Christ right now,” said Holloway.

“I am in agreement that the position Sierra Sands would be put in in the past by approving the charter school the way they were required to approve it would not have been a positive action for them,” he said.

“If I had sat on that board I wouldn’t have agreed to it either because there was oversight requirements and financial implications … it has nothing to do with the superficial reasons everybody assumes it does. There is very sound business reasons why they shouldn’t take us on.”

However, he said, RCS is in a different position now. “I think those reasons changed a little bit. I think if you could get them so they would talk in private, since they won’t talk in public, maybe you could get a different conversation going. With supervision.”

“They had the chance to ask questions any time,” said Bruen.

Holloway speculated that one source of the state’s opposition could be political — both Gov. Gavin Newsom and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond campaigned on a platform that supported California Teachers Association agendas to close charter schools in the state.

Parent Jessica Fine asked about the timeline of the merger.

“I’m going to put my CEO hat on for you,” said Bruen. “I serve on this governing board, but in my day job I actually run a business.

“The word ‘merger’ means that you don’t say much. It means that you do a lot of work because there’s attorneys and there’s assets and there’s dollars and there’s a lot of other things going on. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of information coming really fast. I can simply tell you that I’m trying to lay out what I think we believe are strategic options so that, when we reach the March 13-14 meeting, we have the options to tell you there are other options on the table.”

In response to a question from the public, Bruen acknowledged that potential merger partners would not be associated with Sierra Sands.

Another parent asked what action items they could carry out.

“I would make contact with Sierra Sands to provide you some direction with what would happen to your child if RCS closes,” said Bruen. “They’re right here. You can drive over and knock on their door and say, ‘What the hell is going to happen to my kid?’”

He also encouraged parents to continue to “engage, participate, encourage and remain positive throughout the process between now and March 13.

“Again, we have implored SSUSD to present information to the parents. Right now I have to use that as our company line because I can talk to them but … I’m trying to open up that door. It has to be a two-way door.”

“I heard somewhere that Sierra Sands has a plan, but has not expressed it,” said another parent. “Is there anybody they have to answer to? Who would they be willing to talk to?”

“You’re more than welcome to contact them,” responded Martinez.

“Do they have to answer to anybody?” asked the parent.

“My exact answer to you has to be this, which is … they have to answer to the electorate. Their board is an elected board of directors voted on by this community to sit in service for this community. They hire the superintendent, who is to serve for their school district, and I would believe that every American voter has the right to change the direction or administration in the future if they are unsatisfied with the direction it takes today,” said Bruen.

“We are hugely dependent on you as our fighting voice to a certain degree. We have to maintain certain professional courtesies and words and motions for the sake of the school. I want to be very clear about that – for the sake of the school. But you – as parents, as individual citizens – you have the right to speak and to say anything in regard to your passionate beliefs about the school.”

“I have met several times with Steve Martinez. In fact we just spoke [Wednesday]. I think we both want to do what is best for our kids, the staff and this community, and we are trying to find a way to make this work for everyone,” said Bell.

“I will reiterate that our district has no control over the state board’s decision; neither do we have any influence. When they make their decision, we will sit down with the charter school representatives, explore options, hear concerns and work together to make the best decision for our children.”

Holloway said that parents should also carry their concerns to the city council.

“The biggest employer in the community is trying to hire young millennials. Young millennials appreciate choice. Young millennials respect competition. For the city of Ridgecrest to lose their only charter school when you’re trying to recruit people … the No. 1 thing people look at is education,” he said.

“If you say we have no charter school, that is not a positive thing. The city needs to be engaged. I would encourage you to contact Scott O’Neil with the IWV Economic Development Corp. That represents businesses who know how hard it is to recruit new people. A charter school is as important as a Super Walmart. And to have no charter school in our community is a travesty, and it’s a bad reflection on us. I would be embarrassed if I was on the city council.”

“I would like to verify with the board,” said Bruen. “Do you guys agree with the strategy that was laid out, and are you comfortable with myself and Dr. Martinez leading in those directions?”

The three other board members in attendance agreed.

“I’m just asking. I have been accused of being a dictator in my business and I don’t want to be a dictator with this board.”

Story First Published: 2019-02-15