updated at 11:06 a.m.
The Contra Costa County Board of Education unanimously approved Clayton Valley High School’s conversion to a charter school at a meeting on Wednesday night in front of more than 300 people.
The county approved the petition with conditions for three years, starting in the Fall of 2012. The 12 conditions – minor requests for more information, confirmation of information or elaboration on certain items - must be met by March and June.
For petition supporters, who erupted into cheers as the vote was announced, the county’s decision caps months of debate over financial issues and their claims that the Mount Diablo Unified School District has failed its students.
“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Neil McChesney, a teacher at Clayton Valley and co-chair of the charter committee. “We cannot wait to get to work. We are dedicated, we are capable and we know that this can be a school to be proud of."
The vote overturns that of the district school board, which rejected the proposal in November over concerns that the charter plan was not financially sound.
However, with the state’s midyear trigger cuts being less than originally estimated, County staff found the school’s proposed budget to be balanced. In its recommendation, the staff also said the petition met state requirements for educational programs, operation plans and diversity.
“We want to see what this charter school is going to do,” Jane Shamieh, staff controller, told the board.
The charter issue has drawn a sharp line between the Clayton Valley community and the district’s other schools. Over 60 people took the podium during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting to voice their opinions.
While opponents of the charter school questioned its effects on special education and ESL students, the most hotly contested issue continued to be money.
The district’s other schools worry that Clayton Valley’s conversion will take much-needed funding away from the district’s 31,000 other students, because the district will have to pay more funding per student to Clayton Valley than they receive from the state.
“I’ve seen the steady decline of school funding, and I’ve had to fight tooth and nail for the meager education my children receive today, ” said Deb Heinzmann, parent of two children at Ygnacio Valley High School. “The charter creates an unequal system in our district.”
Those financial concerns were echoed by several of the county board’s trustees. Dan Gomes asked the charter petitioners whether they would consider accepting the same level of funding as other schools in the district, rather than the increased funding charter schools receive. The board’s trustees also debated whether the district could apply for a waiver to offset the possibility of financial burden on other schools.
However, state law dictates that the board cannot factor the financial impact of the charter school into its decision, and instead must solely look at weather the petition meets state requirements.
“There has been a brewing discussion on whether charter schools are good for our community or not, and that discussion is not for this time,” said Board Pesident Cynthia Ruehlig, addressing the trustees before the vote.
Clayton Valley’s supporters are hoping that the conversion will enable them to counter district budget cuts, staff layoffs and growing class sizes. The focus will be on creating a model of success that other schools in the district will benefit from, said charter supporter and Clayton Councilwoman Julie Pierce.
“It’s really important that we turn this ship around. And if we can be the beacon that leads the district out of this mess, then that’s what we need to do,” Pierce said.