Quid pro charter
In a rare move, Sacramento County school board granted a charter network’s appeal to expand to Citrus Heights. Controversy ensued.
In a highly unusual move, the Sacramento County Board of Education cleared a path for a charter school operation to expand to Citrus Heights over the objections of a local school district.
And the board trustee who represents Citrus Heights received a significant campaign donation from a charter political action committee just two days after her “yes” vote and less than a month before she faces reelection in the only contested race on her board.
Area 4 trustee Joanne Ahola actually got two donations from Charter Public Schools PAC after her Feb. 4 vote supporting the Rocklin Academy Family of Schools’ appeal to open a K-2 campus in Citrus Heights. The first, for $1,000, arrived just two days after Ahola and four other trustees sided with Rocklin Academy and against the San Juan Unified School District, which rejected the $24 million charter nonprofit’s expansion bid over the summer. The next check, for $1,825, arrived a week later.
Ahola is one of four Sacramento County Board of Education trustees up for reelection on March 3, but the only one with competition. She is being challenged by Pervez Akhtar, a retired security officer who has reported no campaign contributions.
Ahola rejected the notion of the charter PAC rewarding her for votes rendered.
“There is no correlation between the timing of the donations and the vote,” she told SN&R. “We’re just in an early primary.”
Before Ahola added the $2,825 in charter PAC money to her reelection fund, she had raised only $1,624 through all of 2019 and had more than $3,000 in outstanding debts, campaign filings show.
Getting significant financial support from pro-charter groups isn’t new for the county school board.
In her previous election, Ahola accepted more than $100,000 from the Parent Teacher Alliance to defeat Michael Alcalay, a web marketing firm president and public school supporter who managed only $15,000 in contributions. Like Charter Public Schools PAC, the Sacramento-based alliance gets its financial backing from the political affiliate of the California Charter Schools Association, which has spent heavily to stock the influential county board with charter-friendly allies.
In 2018, the association contributed more than $19,000 to Area 3 winner Paul A. Keefer. Two years earlier, it gave $156,000 to eventual Area 6 winner Heather Davis and nearly $200,000 in cash and in-kind donations to Roy Grimes, who still lost to Harold Fong in the Area 7 race.
“Our board has been taken over by charter school people,” Fong told SN&R.
While Ahola said she’s grateful for the statewide charter association’s financial support and acknowledged that it “certainly helped get me elected,” she told SN&R that the money doesn’t affect her decisions.
“For me it’s not about being pro-charter. It’s about being pro-kid,” Ahola said.
Still, it’s rare for the Board of Education to overrule another school district, as she voted to do this month.
Sacramento County Office of Education Superintendent Dave Gordon said it’s only happened twice before, in the mid-2000s, and that neither of the charter schools ended up opening after winning their appeals from trustees.
“They both failed to get their act together,” Gordon recalled.
More recently, the Sacramento County Office of Education sided with San Juan Unified in denying the charter for Paramount Collegiate Academy. But the state school board overruled them. That didn’t turn out so well; the charter academy abruptly closed in February 2018.
In all its years, the Sacramento County Office of Education has approved only one charter, for Fortune School, a network of tuition-free public charter schools focused on closing the education gap for students of color.
“That has turned out to be a high-functioning program,” Gordon said.
Ahola said she believes Rocklin Academy has the potential to be another one, and she isn’t alone.
“I think the school has some pretty intriguing elements to it,” said Board of Education president Bina Lefkovitz, who also voted for its charter.
Lefkovitz and Ahola both said they were impressed with Rocklin Academy’s desire to serve a socioeconomically disadvantaged population.
“Their goal is not to just come in and serve the affluent white community,” Ahola said.
Jillayne Antoon, Rocklin Academy’s director of growth and community engagement, said the charter’s schools in Placer County are currently outperforming public schools in San Juan Unified.
“We have been closing the achievement gap at our schools, and there is no reason to believe we won’t be successful in Citrus Heights, as well,” Antoon said via email.
The 5-2 vote doesn’t necessarily mean Rocklin Academy will open its new campus in August, as it tells visitors to its admissions webpage.
Charter representatives and SCOE officials still need to negotiate a memorandum of understanding that resolves any unanswered questions, Gordon said. For Lefkovitz, that means putting in writing how Rocklin Academy plans to prioritize the admission of lower-income students, as well as agree to quarterly progress reports its first year of operation.
If the Sacramento County Board of Education does approve an MOU with Rocklin Academy, the county Office of Education—not San Juan Unified—will be responsible for oversight. Rocklin Academy currently operates five public charter schools, all of them in Rocklin. The charter network enrolled nearly 2,600 students last year, according to state education data.
Rocklin Academy’s most recent IRS filings show it collected $23.9 million in tax-exempt revenue in 2017—$19 million of which came in state aid and property taxes. The charter paid $15 million in salaries and other compensation.
Fong said his primary issue with the charter application is that it didn’t show that what worked in upper-middle-class Rocklin can also work in working-class Citrus Heights. Fong said the sample size of students of color and those from low-income households was too statistically insignificant to make a conclusive case.
“You haven’t shown that you’re successful with low-income people in Rocklin, so how do we know you’d be successful in Citrus Heights?” Fong challenged.
San Juan Unified rejected Rocklin Academy’s charter application in June 2019 for “putting forth an unsound educational program” that “petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement.”
Fong said the Feb. 4 meeting grew contentious after his colleagues rejected his amendments without discussion or a vote. “I complained strongly that they silenced my voice on the board,” he said.
Ahola said she hoped Rocklin Academy would win unanimous board approval when its MOU returned in a month or two, because it made an “incredibly compelling” case that it can better educate Citrus Heights underserved students than surrounding public schools.
Lefkovitz acknowledged the board was in somewhat uncharted waters. “I don’t think we’ve yet approved an appeal except for this one,” she said. “So that was a bit unusual.”