Sac High struggle still raging

With the new school year approaching, the embattled school’s future appears as uncertain as ever

Former Superintendent Jim Sweeney.

Former Superintendent Jim Sweeney.

Photo By Larry Dalton

If the fight for Sacramento High School had been a boxing match, you might have picked St. Hope Corp. as the early favorite, the guy with the most muscle, the guy with all the training and the backing of important people, such as a majority of school-board members and former Superintendent Jim Sweeney. But St. Hope’s opponent, a scrappy coalition of community members backed by the teachers union, has come out ahead in the last rounds, even after taking some stunning blows.

St. Hope’s charter petition was discussed with the public as early as December 2002. Sweeney helped present it to the community as a clear winner, an innovative solution to Sac High’s failed academic performance. By the time the school board voted 4-3 to shut the school down, it looked as if a knockout by St. Hope had ended the fight. But there were more rounds to come. The “Save Sac High” coalition, made up of public-school supporters, started yelling, “Recall!” every time members didn’t like something board members said at a school-board meeting. And then they put their money where their mouths were, by serving the four board members who voted for school closure with recall petitions in June.

Such attacks on the district board didn’t directly hurt St. Hope, but they did raise questions in the minds of other community members. It began to look as if the board had bet on St. Hope and had prepared it for the fight but then had given it an unfair advantage.

St. Hope took another glancing blow when the University of California, Los Angeles, School Management Program sent an auditing team to review the reasons for Sac High’s academic failure and determined that the school had failed to reach its academic goals primarily because of a top-heavy administration that had failed to implement a plan for recovery, a lack of resources, and a local school board that had failed in its oversight. Sweeney publicly refuted these findings, but the audit continues to affect how administrators view Sac High’s closure.

Another serious blow came at the end of June, a major uppercut from which St. Hope may not recover. A number of Sac High parents, with the support of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, filed a lawsuit against Sweeney, the district board and St. Hope. And on June 23, Superior Court Judge Trena Burger-Plavan ruled that St. Hope’s charter petition was illegally implemented.

“The court finds that St. Hope’s first charter petition was for the conversion of Sacramento High School,” read the decision. As a conversion charter, as opposed to a start-up charter, St. Hope was obligated to present signatures of support from half the teachers employed at Sacramento High School. Based on the fact that those signatures were not included with the petition, Burger-Plavan determined that the petition should have been denied, regardless of its merits.

Sweeney and the district claimed that because the district voted to close Sacramento High School before voting to grant St. Hope the charter, St. Hope’s petition was a start-up. The judge disagreed. The deciding factor, she wrote, was whether a school previously had existed at the location suggested in the charter-school petition. If one had, then the new charter school had to have the support of half the teachers employed at the old school. In the case of Sac High, teachers actively had voiced opposition to the charter.

Burger-Plavan’s decision could reverse months of work by St. Hope and the district to get the Sac High charter school staffed and functioning in time for September, but St. Hope has appealed.

While St. Hope recovers from this last blow and begins to mount its own attack on the judge’s decision, its main opponent, the scrappy community members trying to keep Sac High public, are striking on a different front. Again, they’re targeting the district.

Before the closure of Sac High was even publicly proposed, the district was already under public scrutiny for implementing a slightly shadowy plan that improved retirement benefits for district administrators in an effort to retain and attract talent. The plan added up to many thousands of dollars a year in added retirement benefits for administrators, and it was very exclusive, covering only about 111 Sacramento Unified School District employees and 12 from the Yolo County Office of Education. To accept these improved retirement benefits, eligible district employees had to take leaves of absence from their districts and go to work officially for the California Administrative Services Authority (CASA).

Educational lobbyist Reginald Fair put together a report criticizing the California Administrative Services Authority.

Photo By Larry Dalton

CASA officially was created as a joint-powers authority between Sacramento Unified School District and the Yolo County Office of Education in July 2000. It was billed as an alternate retirement plan to California Public Employees’ Retirement System, or CalPERS. Issuing bonds to strengthen its financial stability, CASA lured administrators away from CalPERS, but working officially for CASA, insisted CASA General Manager Dale Badgley, amounted to no more than a change in who issued the payroll checks. Administrators’ duties, titles and payroll schedules remained exactly the same.

“It didn’t change anyone’s commitment to the district,” said Badgley.

Some community members, especially parents of Sacramento High School students, weren’t so sure. If Sweeney, for example, didn’t really work for the district, whose agenda was he pushing? And how were these enhanced benefits paid for? In a tight budget year, community members didn’t want to see district funds going into retirement instead of the classroom. Mistrust deepened when community members realized that CASA had a second mission, to provide administrative services to charter schools.

A community investigative team emerged, calling itself the Sacramento Leadership Coalition on Public Education. It attracted many of the same individuals involved in the recall effort against four of the district’s seven board members. The coalition’s goal was to uncover conflicts of interest or any extra costs to the district. The coalition report, titled “Preliminary Investigative Report on the California Administrative Services Authority,” was publicly released on July 9. In it, the group made a lot of assumptions and accusations that were immediately denied both by CASA and Sweeney. The coalition, though it admitted to having limited access to information, still insists that its evidence is compelling enough to warrant a larger investigation.

For parents who were fighting ruthlessly to keep Sac High open, it was particularly threatening to hear that Sweeney, who seemed most responsible for Sac High’s transition to a charter school, worked for a company that made money from serving charter schools.

Badgley insisted that the two sides of CASA functioned independently. District employees who joined CASA for the benefits kept working exclusively for the district. Employees providing administrative or financial services to charter schools had resigned from their district jobs and worked for CASA independently as workshop administrators, financial administrators and consultants. No employee who worked for charter schools, insisted Badgley, was paid by district funds.

Even if that’s true, the coalition insists, CASA is not cost-neutral. Coalition members maintain this opinion in spite of a public meeting during which actuaries, analysts and CASA executive Laura Bruno, once the district’s chief financial officer, confirmed that CASA was a legal, stable, cost-neutral option.

As evidence to the contrary, the coalition report claimed that CASA had charged the Sacramento district indirect fees that may have added up to more than $1 million.

Badgley admitted, as did Bruno during the public meeting, that indirect fees had been charged to the Sacramento district unintentionally and that those fees had been returned.

“I’d like to take her at her word that she’s already returned the money,” said coalition spokesman Reginald Fair, but he preferred to see proof.

Though Badgley has a defense for each of Fair’s accusations, the public mistrust and criticism has led him to rethink CASA’s future. CASA had expected to handle both retirement funds and a consultancy for charter schools, but Badgley and CASA’s board of directors are now considering separating the two.

“It’s become a lot bigger political football," said Badgley of CASA’s unexpected step into the battle. "We don’t want any entity choosing to do business with us to think of us as a liability."