Parent Group Files Lawsuit Over School Takeover Petition Rejection

The parents union that was turned back last month in its effort to utilize the Parent Empowerment Act to take over operations of Desert Trails Elementary School filed a lawsuit on April 5 against the Adelanto School District and its board of trustees.
The Desert Trails Parents Union does not appear to be funding the legal action on its own and is being assisted by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Parent Revolution and that group’s law firm, Kirkland & Ellis.
On January 12,  the parent union submitted what its members believed were a sufficient number of signatures on petitions to force the district to undertake a set of what the parents union believes will be reforms at the severely underperforming Desert Trails Elementary School, which ranks last out of the ten elementary schools in the Adelanto School District and in the bottom ten percent of all elementary schools statewide in terms of academics, such that out of the graduating sixth grade class 72 percent of students are not proficient with the English language and 70 percent are not proficient in math.
Those petitions called upon the district to sack the school’s principal, David Mobley,  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.
The Parent Empowerment Act, authored by former state senator Gloria Romero and passed by the legislature in 2010, enables a majority of parents at a school at which students test out as low-performers on state academic tests to 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. That process is known by the colloquialism “parent trigger.”
A group of parents opposed to the parent takeover of the school formed and went to  work obtaining rescissions of many of the signatures on the petitions.
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 466 signatures on the petitions. The Desert Trails Parent Union, through one of Kirkland & Ellis’s attorney’s, Mark Holscher, demanded a recount and reconsideration of that invalidation of the petition effort and after the district did so, the board, on March 28,  voted unanimously to give a final rejection to the reconsideration of  the parent trigger petition, finding that it fell 20 signatures short of the  321 signatures needed.
Holscher and Kirkland & Ellis on April 5 filed on behalf of five of the members of the parents union – Doreen Diaz, Kathy Duncan, Teresa Rogers, Olivia Zamarripa and Bartola Del Villar – a petition for a writ of mandate and a complaint in Victorville Superior Court seeking a court order that the district verify the signatures and allow the Parent Trigger process to advance, as well as asking for the  recognition of  the educational rights of students at Desert Trails.
According to Holscher’s filing, “On January 12, 2012 70% of the Desert Trails parents petitioned the district to transform the failed school into a parent-led, community-based independent charter school. The parents’ petition was explicitly authorized by the parent trigger statute that allows parents to file such a petition for a failed school, and requires a school district to implement any petition signed by 50% of the parents.”
But the district cheated those parents in the course of its signature verification process, according to Holscher, and his writ of mandate calls upon the court to reestablish the petition as valid.
“The district ‘counted’ the parents’ votes,” Holscher said. “While nearly all vote counting for petitions and voting in California is done by disinterested third parties and with processes to ensure impartiality, the district vote counters here opposed the petition to remove the district from running the failed school. The district, however, faced an insurmountable problem: 466 parents had signed the petition, and the district had no discretion to reject the petition so long as there were 333 proper signatures. The district, unfortunately, engaged in a systematic effort to invalidate the petitions. First, despite the clear legal mandate that the district must accept every parent’s petition absent proof that a petition was not valid, and the courts’ repeated instructions that any attempt to reject a citizen’s First Amendment protected right to petition must withstand the most ‘exacting scrutiny,’ the district refused to accept 25 parents’ petitions because the district could not find a signature in its files to compare to the petition signature. The parents’ first requested relief is for this court to reverse the improper rejection of these 25 petitions. Once these 25 petitions are restored, as these presumptive valid votes must be, the petition is over 50 percent and cannot be blocked by the district. Second, the district’s teachers as well as teachers from outside the district engaged in a campaign to coerce parents to ‘rescind’ their petitions, and the district then used 97 of these purported ‘rescissions’ to block the January 12th petition.  The parent trigger statute and its regulations do not allow for any ‘rescissions’ after a petition is filed.”
Holscher’s filing  continues, “The parents’ second request for relief is for this court to rule that the district improperly rejected 97 petitions by rescinding the votes through this unauthorized ‘rescission’ process.   Moreover, not only are rescissions not permitted, the parents have uncovered smoking-gun proof that individuals who obtained the rescissions doctored and falsified rescission forms and engaged in a coercive campaign to block the petition.  Even if the parent trigger statute called for ‘rescissions’ after a vote, which it does not, the fraudulent rescission process here could not possibly survive the ‘exacting scrutiny’ that this court must apply to this rejection of the petition.  Third, the parents here request that the court grant a writ requiring the district to approve the March 6, 2012 resubmission of the petition by the parents.”
Holscher maintains that prior to the board’s March 28 vote, Adelanto School District Superintendent Darrin Brawley acknowledged the parents had garnered sufficient valid signatures to qualify for the parent trigger takeover of the school.
“The parents met with the superintendent of the district on March 6, 2012, to go over the petitions and reach agreement on the valid petitions,” according to the court filing. “At the March 6th meeting, the superintendent and the parents went through all the disputed petitions. After reviewing the petitions the superintendent specifically represented to plaintiff Doreen Diaz and another person at the meeting that ‘You are definitely over 50% at this time.’  The parents made it clear that they would only resubmit at that time and not get even more signatures if the district agreed they were over 50%. When the parents asked again and told the superintendent that they wanted to advise the school board publicly that night of the superintendent’s findings, the superintendent said it would be fine for the parents to tell that to the board.  The board then rejected the resubmitted petition by falsely claiming that the petition was again under 50%, even with the ‘corrections’ requested by the district. The parents request that the court rule that the district is estopped from rejecting the petition because the district superintendent specifically represented to the parents that the petition was over 50% knowing full well that the parents would resubmit on that basis.”
In an exclusive interview with the Sentinel, Brawley disputed Holscher and Diaz’s assertions.
“I disagree with that adamantly,” Brawley said. “I told them we still needed to go through the verification process. What they claim was said is an accurate description of their statements to me but certainly not mine to them. I handed over a stack of information and informed them they would need to go through the verification process. I never told them we were over the threshold. That would not be known without going through the verification process.”
The court papers state, “In its findings, the district purported to return the petition for being under 50 percent, again relying on rescission forms that it knew were tainted by forgery and fraud. The district relied on 70 questionable rescission forms that would be deducted from the total, even though the parent trigger statute did not even include a rescission option.  Aside from relying on fraudulent documents, the district’s own math did not add up with its prior rejection of the petition on February 21. Inexplicably, 15 students from the board’s February 21 findings were unaccounted for in the board’s March 28 findings. The missing 15 students, not surprisingly in the district’s favor, remain a mystery.”
According to Holscher, “The district acted in bad faith throughout the petition process. The district has no compelling reason that would justify the burdensome and onerous verification procedure they have crafted which has and continues to chill the protected speech of the plaintiffs.”
Brawley said that the district is “still examining the writ.” He said he and the district would defer comment until the analysis of the filing is complete and that given the legal issues involved it would most likely be lawyers doing the talking.
“That is something that will be responded to by our legal team,” Brawley said.

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