Judge Rules “Parent Trigger” Makeover Of Adelanto School Can Proceed

(July 27)  The parents union at Desert Trails Elementary School this week became the first such coalition of parents and education activists to actuate the provisions of California’s Empowerment Act.
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 score  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.”
At Desert Trails Elementary School in the Adelanto Elementary School District, a significant number of the students have parents whose first language is not English. For the last seven years, Desert Trails students have had the lowest scores within the district on state standardized academic tests. The school’s students have also collectively scored in the bottom 10 percent of all California elementary schools. In the school’s 2011 graduating sixth grade class 72 percent of students were not proficient with the English language and 70 percent were not proficient in math. Two-thirds of this year’s crop of graduating sixth-graders are unable to read or do math at grade level. Since 2007 Desert Trails has been classified as a failing school.
Pursuant to the Parent Empowerment Act, a parent union was formed by parents at Desert Trails Elementary last year, in large measure at the instigation of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Parent Revolution, which is devoted to challenging the traditional authority of school districts.
On January 12, the parent union submitted 466 signatures on petitions asking the district to undertake a set of what the parents union maintains will be reforms at the severely underperforming school.
Those petitions, which 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, were sufficient to meet the requirements of the Parent Empowerment Act, parent union members believed. The parent union subsequently modified that agenda to request that the school be converted to a charter academy, offering an intensified curriculum.
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, represented by a law firm on retainer with Parent Revolution, Los Angeles-based Kirkland & Ellis, demanded a recount and reconsideration of that invalidation of the petition effort. After the district conducted that recount, the board, on March 28, voted unanimously to give a final rejection to the reconsideration of the parent trigger petitions, finding they fell 20 signatures short of the 321 signatures needed.
In response,  Mark Holscher, an attorney with 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.
While the parent trigger proponents said nearly 70 percent of the parents had signed the petitions, the district claimed that some of those signatures had been rescinded, that there were no signatures on file to verify some of the signatures, and that others were invalid because the signers did not know what they were signing. After discounting them on those grounds, the district claimed the petitions were 16 signatures short.
Holscher maintained that the district did not make an impartial tally of the signatures and “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.
“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,” Holscher continued. “The parent trigger statute and its regulations do not allow for any ‘rescissions’ after a petition is filed. 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.”
Judge Steve Malone, to whom the case was assigned, restored 97 of the signatures tossed out by the district, ruling that the district did not have the authority or a basis in law to discount signatures that proponents gathered and the district had abused its discretion in doing so. “Once the petition was submitted, the district and the trustees lacked authority to reject 97 signatures from the petition based on subsequent extrinsic evidence of rescission,” Malone ruled.  “The district and trustees have a mandatory legislative duty to include those signatures.”
By his ruling Malone raised the number of qualified signatures to well above 50 percent. He ordered the Adelanto Elementary School District to accept the petition as filed by the parent union within 30 days and seek proposals from charter school operators to take over Desert Trails.
The ruling makes the Desert Trails Parent Union the first group to successfully enact California’s 2010 Parent Empowerment Act.
Doreen Diaz, lead petitioner and the coordinator of the Desert Trails Parent Union commented, “In speaking for all the Desert Trails parents, this is a huge milestone in our struggle for our children to receive the basic education they are entitled to and deserve.”
Holscher said, “We appreciate the careful consideration Judge Malone gave the parents in this precedent setting case.   This ruling will pave the way for parents across California to secure their fundamental right to a quality education for their children.”
Adelanto Elementary School District Superintendent Darin Brawley told the Sentinel “We’re disappointed in the ruling. It is ironic that a statute provided to empower parents is actually disempowering parents.”
Brawley said he did not know whether the parent union would insist on restarting the school as a charter academy, turning it around,  seeking alternative governance for the school or shutting it down altogether.  “There has been a lot of speculation about what they will do. They are going to hold a news conference on July 27 to announce their next step. We’re waiting to see what they’ll do next. It would be premature to formulate how we are going to respond at this time.”

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