In Adelanto, the seventh smallest of San Bernardino County’s 24 cities, a crucial test of an obscure provision of the state of California’s Educational Code is playing out, thrusting the mostly blue collar desert community of 31,765 into the national limelight.
A group of parents at Desert Trails Elementary School, backed and perhaps even prompted by a controversial organization advocating parental primacy over professional teachers in California’s public education system, is seeking to employ the Parent Empowerment Act, also known by the colloquialism parent trigger, in a bid to make a host of what they insist are necessary reforms, including sacking the school’s principal and a major portion of the faculty in favor of a parent-run charter school.
Adelanto, which is not a hotbed of intellectualism nor known for being on the cutting-edge of societal innovation, is an unlikely venue for the drama being played out. But a combination of factors, including disparate and even contradictory influences, is driving the effort to employ the parent trigger. Meanwhile, many parents in the district are opposing a parent takeover every bit as vigorously as others are encouraging it.
Under the state’s 2010 Parent Empowerment Act, authored by former state senator Gloria Romero, a majority of parents at a school at which students test out as low-performers on state academic tests can force a district to implement significant reforms, ranging from replacing the principal and up to half the staff to reopening the school as a charter academy.
In the Adelanto Unified School District, the “parent trigger” movement manifested at 642-student Desert Trails Elementary, located on Bellflower Street north of Palmdale Road, where pupils there have consistently scored among the bottom 10 percent of students statewide in California’s standardized testing program for the last eight years. The school has been on the federal Program Improvement watch list for failing schools since 2005.
Parent Revolution, a nonprofit promoting parental control of schools in the Greater Los Angeles area, last year undertook to use the Parent Empowerment Act to effectuate a parent takeover at low performing McKinley Elementary in Compton, but that undertaking ultimately failed in a tangle of bureaucratic, legal and political resistance from the Compton School District. As early as last summer, Parent Revolution organizers approached parents in Adelanto in an effort to interest them in the concept of utilizing the parent trigger.
In November, a handful of Desert Trails parents signed onto the effort and by January, the movement had become something of a juggernaut. Ultimately, petition gatherers for the group succeeded in gathering 464 parent signatures, putatively representing nearly 69 percent of the students at Desert Trails. Those petitions, which were turned over to the district on January 12, called upon the district to relieve David Mobley as Desert Trails principal and surrender to the school’s parents authority in hiring his successor, infuse in the new principal hiring authority for the school’s faculty, reduce class sizes and increase the number of school days and instructional hours, and include more science, history and art in the curriculum. If those demands were met, parents were amenable to keeping the school under the authority of the school district. If the demands were not met, they called for Desert Trails Elementary to be converted to a community charter academy operated under the aegis of the Desert Trails Kids First nonprofit.
Yet even as the group was experiencing success in its push for the so-called reforms, it suffered setbacks. As the movement progressed, it garnered attention from local media and the community at large. Some of the parents openly advocating for a parent takeover made statements at a variance with those made by other parent trigger advocates. Some publicly revealed they had withdrawn their children from the school, invalidating their participation as petitioners. It was soon revealed that the Parent Trigger movement in Adelanto was a less-than-indigenous one, with activists from the Parent Revolution organization having used donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to rent a house in Adelanto to serve as the parent union headquarters.
A counter-parental trigger group formed, initially consisting of parents from Desert Trails Elementary who questioned whether the parents of poor-performing students in the district had the education, understanding, intelligence level, expertise or sophistication to take on the function, individually or collectively, of school administrators. In time, though, that group would find its independence questioned, when it was demonstrated that it was being assisted by the California Teachers Association.
In February, the school district, to whom the parent trigger petitions had been entrusted, announced that it had validated the signatures of only 317 of the 666 signatures on the petitions.
Thus, district superintendent Darin Brawley, maintained, the petition drive had failed.
According to Brawley, 252 of the invalidated signatures either did not match the signatures for the parents on file, or the attached information was plagued by wrong or missing grade levels, names and addresses. The district also invalidated petitions in English that were signed by the parents of children who had previously requested that the district provide them with communications in Spanish.
In addition, at least 97 parents rescinded their signatures, amid the accusations on both sides that harassment and intimidation tactics were used in the effort to have parents affix their signatures to or withdraw their signatures from the petition.
Overall, the district maintained, the percentage of parents endorsing the parent-led reform package dropped from the 69 percent initially claimed by the Desert Trail Kids First organization to 47.6 percent, less than the 50 percent plus one threshold required.
The district’s action at once prompted a virulent reaction. Kirkland & Ellis LLP, a multinational law firm with offices in Chicago, Hong Kong, London, Munich, New York, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Shanghai, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles that represented Compton parents when they had sought to utilize the parent trigger law to force the overhaul of McKinley Elementary School last year, leapt into the breach. Mark Holscher, a Kirkland & Ellis attorney, charged that the counter-reform parents group had been assisted by the California Teachers Association and had engaged in fraud and misrepresentations in inducing parents who had signed the petition to rescind their endorsements.
“I write to demand, on behalf of the parents and their children, that the Adelanto School District Board of Trustees immediately reverse its February 21, 2012 board findings and action with respect to the petition, which unlawfully returned the petition to the parents claiming it included signatures representing less than 50% of the students actively enrolled at Desert Trails,” Holscher wrote in a letter dated February 27. “Among other things, the board improperly discounted valid petition signatures from parents representing 97 students based on alleged ‘revocations,’ which are not authorized under the parent trigger law. Even more disturbing, we have uncovered improper conduct based on ample evidence that these improper ‘revocations’ were secured through harassment, false statements, and intimidation. Finally, and most alarmingly, we have also discovered compelling evidence of potential criminal conduct, that the revocations submitted here were falsified or forged. The petition submitted to the board on January 12, 2012 met all of the requirements set forth under the parent trigger law and regulations, including all disclosure obligations to ensure that parents were provided adequate and accurate information about the reforms sought.”
In his letter, Holscher charged that Brawley “and the board of trustees have failed to uphold the parents’ right to petition by your unlawful action. Among other things, the board discounted signatures representing 97 students whose parents signed and submitted valid petitions. Its basis for doing, relying on so-called ‘revocations,’ was improper. The Election Code forbids voters from withdrawing their signature from a petition once it is filed with election officials. School districts are expressly instructed to determine the number of signatures based on the date of submission of the petition. There is no basis to discount signatures based on purported misunderstandings, particularly where the petition was already submitted to the district and complied with all disclosure obligations.”
Holscher said a review of the revocations received from the district showed they were “flatly inadequate. Here, the ‘revocations’ consist of nothing more than a check-list form providing a number of purported reasons for revoking a signature and a line for a parent to sign and identify his or her child. This form does not identify who created it, does not disclose the identity of the person or entity circulating it, and doesn’t provide any of the detailed information required for petitions themselves under the Parent Trigger law. All of the supposed ‘reasons’ listed on the form are nothing more than conclusory, boiler-plate, pre-printed statements, such as claiming the signor was ‘misinformed,’ ‘did not understand’ or was ‘given false statements or false promises.’ While the form provides parents’ space to ‘explain’ certain answers, almost none of the parents supposedly signing these forms provided any explanation. It is also obvious that the district made no effort to investigate the validity of these forms, nor did it purport to contact any of the parents who supposedly signed these forms. In several cases, the parent signing the revocation form was not even the parent who signed the petition form (in which case it would be absurd for that non-signing parent to make claims in connection with a petition he or she did not sign). Several of these revocation forms are not even signed. In sum, it is clear that the forms themselves are insufficient to justify discounting valid petition signatures, and the district compounded its improper conduct by failing to make any effort to investigate or authenticate the information or signatures supposedly provided in these forms.”
Holscher said his law firm had documented proof of “two examples where revocation forms submitted on behalf of two parents appear to have been fraudulently altered. In one version of the form, no boxes listing reasons for rescinding the petition are checked, and another version includes one or more boxes checked. The only plausible explanation is that some person or organization with access to these revocation forms filled in these boxes after the parent signed the form without checking any boxes. Both parents have signed sworn declarations stating that they did not check any boxes on the revocation form.” According to Holscher, the parents also claimed they did not understand that they were revoking their earlier endorsement of the parent trigger plan.
District officials maintain that if any alterations of the rescission documents were made, they occurred before the documents were provided to the district.
Holscher said the district and those involved in the counter-trigger group engaged in “an improper campaign of harassment, false statements, and intimidation. Among other things, there are reports that parents were told blatant lies about the goals of the petition in order to secure signatures on these revocation forms. Some parents were told that their children would not be able to attend Desert Trails if it was converted to a charter school, despite a requirement under the regulations that any school transformed under the parent trigger law must continue to serve ‘all pupils.’ In other cases, parents were falsely told that if the petition succeeded, the school would be closed down, or that all of the teachers would be fired.”
Holscher warned Brawley and the board, “We are contacting the local district attorney to request that he investigate these falsifications. On behalf of the parents, we demand that the board reverse its findings to reject those signatures, and proceed with approving the petition.”
In response to Holscher’s letter, the district has agreed to reinstate as valid two of the revoked signatures. Still the same, on March 28, the Adelanto School District’s board of trustees voted 5-0 to reject the Desert Trails Parent Union’s petition to transform Desert Trails Elementary into a charter campus, based upon its finding that the parent’s union failed to win the support of parents representing at least half of the school’s 642 students.
Parents on both sides of the issue maintain those on the opposing end have used deception, harassment and unacceptable intimidation in pursuing their ends. The California Teachers Association acknowledges it was opposed to the parent trigger bill when it was being considered by the legislature and that it had provided information and assistance in the way of advice and references to the law to anti-Trigger parents in Adelanto, but that the actual gathering of the rescission petitions was left to parents.
Holscher vowed his firm will proceed with a writ in San Bernardino Superior Court for an order for the district to comply with the parents’ request under the Parent Empowerment Act. Thus, the matter appears yet to be resolved.
Some consider the bid to have Adelanto achieve notoriety as the locality where parent empowerment was first activated as a tribute to the community and the commitment and tenacity of its citizens as legislation similar to the California Parent Trigger Law is being considered in at least 18 other states. Others see the drama in the Adelanto School District as an unseemly spectacle, with agitators in the parent trigger movement seeking to exploit large numbers of parents at Desert Trail Elementary School whose own educational shortcomings, including a lack of facility in the English language, has contributed to the poor academic performance of their own children.
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