The Riverside County Board of Education last week tentatively approved the appeal of a charter school petition by Vista Charter Public Schools on a 4-3 vote despite staff’s concerns about the filed application.

“The petitioner has not demonstrated the seriousness and due diligence necessary in multiple instances by copying and pasting prior petitions without modifications, in multiple instances using obsolete language or wrong years,” Corey Loomis, charter schools unit director, said at the March 6 meeting. “The petition … is a binding agreement and a promise to the board and community [and] is expected to be thorough and comprehensive to provide the best programs possible for our students.”

The school, Vista Lago Global Academy, initially filed its charter petition with the Lake Elsinore Unified School District (LEUSD) last fall with plans for opening the TK-12 school in the fall of 2025. The district denied the charter petition last December, prompting the organization to file an appeal with the Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE) earlier this year.

“We’ve conducted a thorough review of the petition,” Loomis said. “We logged in probably at least 100 hours if not more collective hours in our review of the petition.”

Those who spoke ahead of the board’s discussion also shared concerns about the charter application, and they urged the board to deny the charter school’s appeal.

“Clearly, there is less interest in the education and success of our students and more interest in whatever interests that this group has,” Joshua Fleming, a senior labor relations representative for the California School Employees Association (CSEA), said. “We implore you to stand up for our kids, stand up for our communities. Keep public money in public schools.”

Fleming’s sentiments were echoed by CSEA Chapter 693 President Thomas Philp III, who implored the board to take to heart staff’s findings.

“Unfortunately, I was not able to find too much in here that was positive,” he said. “You don’t need 100 people here to advocate for it, I think just one report’s enough so I’ll let that stand.”

However, Samantha Stackelhouse, Southern California local advocacy associate director for the California Charter Schools Association who spoke during the board’s discussion, said Vista Charter Public Schools was a leader in the industry and called on the board to approve the appeal.

“Vista, as an organization, has been able to successfully operate six schools across two counties for over 15 years,” she said. “The leadership team and school philosophy at Vista have cemented them as a leader within our region’s charter community across the state.” 

The staff report, which can be read in full here, highlighted three main findings: The charter presented an “unsound” educational program; the organization was “demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement” the program that had been laid out in the application; and, the application did not have a “reasonably comprehensive description” of the required elements.

Specifically for the first finding, Loomis said that the charter was proposing an approach to literacy that “contradicts the science of reading,” which was significant given the performances of the charter’s network schools in English Language Arts.

“The performance does not demonstrate promise for the students to be served,” he said. “The network schools consistently underperform the state standards in ELA, English Language Arts, which is notable given the petitioners propose ELA methodology, using inconsistent with current science and best practices.”

However, representatives for the charter school said it realigned its ELA program in 2022 with the most up-to-date program that not only adheres to state law, but also aligns with the latest science regarding reading.

“We do not use the 2018 outdated version,” Vista Charter Public Schools Superintendent Don Wilson said. “The charter petition process was never intended to bind us to one curriculum, but to provide a reasonable description of how we will approach our programs.” 

For the second finding, Loomis said the charter failed to show how it would meet the needs of the students it intends to serve, lacked a demonstrated record of student success and engagement in its existing charter schools, was not diligent in preparing an application specific to this proposed charter school and has a lack of experience operating at the high school level, though for the final point Loomis noted the charter does have high school experience, it was just not reflected in the petition.

“This is the review of the petition,” Loomis said. “Any additional comments — and there have been made comments in the public hearing, there have been made comments during our subcommittee meeting as well — essentially that many parts of this is not reflective of their current practice. Their current practice, obviously then, would not be reflected in the petition that stands before us.”

Representatives said that contrary to the information presented in the staff report, the charter network’s other schools actually do outperform neighboring campuses and are able to offer “student-centered individualized programming” that supports the learning goals of all students enrolled.

“This is a true testament to the effective implementation of our practices and programs and continued commitments to serving the needs of our students and local communities just as we’re committed to serving students in Lake Elsinore,” Vista Charter Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Karen Amaya said.

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For the final finding, Loomis said that while there were elements of what was expected to be included in the charter petition, those pieces were not described at a level that would be deemed “reasonably comprehensive,” when it came to multi-tiered system of supports, grading and reporting and how the school would launch with just nine teachers, though the last point was addressed previously by the charter school applicants.

“The petitioners did share in the public hearing verbally what that would look like, but that level of detail was not provided in the petition,” Loomis said.

In addressing these concerns, representatives said that the charter not only has robust multi-tiered system of supports in place at its other campuses that would be implemented at the proposed school, but also has in place grading reporting systems in place that allow for student achievement that is above and beyond neighboring schools in the districts that they operate.

“We are confident that we will be successful, and that you can, and you should approve this petition,” Vista Charter Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Collin Felchs said. “A yes vote tonight is a yes vote for the students of Lake Elsinore. It is a yes vote for the parents and families, especially those who desperately want an option in their neighborhood, those who desperately want and high school option period, and those who believe in our model, and it is a yes vote for the community for the city of Lake Elsinore, who has welcomed us with open arms and wants to partner with us closely.”

The board’s discussion focused on the differences between the information included in the charter school’s petition, as reflected in the staff report, and the information representatives for the charter school presented at the meeting.

“If what they’ve shared publicly was articulated in a petition, we might have a dramatically different looking staff report,” Loomis said following a pointed question from Board Member Ben Johnson II about how the additional information would have impacted the report from staff. “Our call is to follow statute and review the petition, and based on their experience, if all that was articulated, that would satisfy many of the requirements.”

Board Member Kim J. Cousins also questioned how thoroughly the LEUSD Board of Education evaluated the application, stating that neither the superintendent, cabinet nor the board asked any clarifying questions of the charter school.

“If it was the world’s worst charter application, I would think they would have at least gone on record and said it was the worst application they ever saw,” he said. “But to actually sit silent and not have any comments relative to the application I think it is pretty obvious what is going on.”

Cousins also said that while the charter school has time in theory to amend the petition and resubmit it to LEUSD for potential approval, as pushed for by Board President Ray Curtis, he said there was no reason to go through what he felt would be another denial by LEUSD and then appeal to RCOE when there was nothing in the organization’s history to suggest it could not operate a new charter school.

“They clearly can provide a service that’s desperately needed in my neighborhood [of] 34 years,” he said. “I think I know my area pretty well, and I don’t think after 20 years, I’m going to stick my neck out and approve something that I think is going to be a failure in my community, because I’m gonna have to live with it.”

Curtis, brought up the recommendation in response to concerns that the application was not prepared by the applicants, but by their attorneys, and was seemingly not done specifically for LEUSD and the appeal was not prepared specifically with RCOE in mind.

“When you come to us in Riverside County, this is not [Los Angeles Unified School District], we expect you to bring it to the best of your ability,” he said. “What I sense is a sense of urgency to help [Lake] Elsinore, and I agree with you. There is a sense of urgency. 

“And I just don’t understand why you would not just take the time to resubmit and come back in a more professional manner, and show the respect for Riverside County Office of Education in your petition,” Curtis continued. “So that’s my comment.”

Despite concerns raised by the public, RCOE staff and board members, the board voted 4-3 to tentatively approve the charter’s appeal for a period of five years starting July 1, 2024, with the understanding that the charter must first agree to enter into a memorandum of understanding. That agreement must address all of the findings highlighted in the staff report, except for the first finding regarding the charter’s English Language Arts programs.

Curtis and board members Elizabeth F. Romero and Jamie Azpeitia-Sachs voted against and board members Johnson, Cousins and Barbara Hale and Vice President Bruce Dennis voted in favor.

“My one point is — I intend to support the motion — but if this had been a brand new charter I would be voting no,” Dennis said ahead of casting his vote. “Just because, again, I am looking at past success in my consideration.”

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