It was only a couple months ago that Clayton Valley High athletic director Pat Middendorf and teacher Neil McChesney came together with an ambitious idea: Make Clayton Valley High the first Bay Area public high school to convert to a charter school.
With help from other teachers and lawyers, the pair quickly produced a charter that, if approved,
The high school would have a longer school year, new technologies would be incorporated into the curriculum, school uniforms might be mandatory and, most notably, the school would no longer be part of the financially troubled Mount Diablo Unified School District. Instead, it would answer directly to the state.
The first hurdle to creating the charter was cleared easily: A majority of teachers needed to agree to the charter, and did so in June.
Now, charter advocates want a majority of the MDUSD board to sign off on the idea as well.
For a variety of reasons, including the possible impact to other schools in the district, the school board could reject the charter. But what the CVHS charter committee has in its favor is the appeal process. If the MDUSD board rejects the charter, the decision can be appealed to the Contra Costa County Office of Education and then, if need be, to the State Board of Education.
Jerry Simmons, an attorney representing the CVHS charter committee, has represented a number of public high schools that converted to charter high schools in California.
When asked how many of his clients have been successful in converting, Simmons said, "Virtually all."
"The key is you have three shots at it," he said.
Of course Clayton Valley's push to become a charter school isn't a lock. It could be derailed because of a flaw in the charter, a sudden drop in public support or something unforeseen. But the chances seem good.
First up, the
At a meeting Thursday at the , charter founders Middendorf and McChesney gave a PowerPoint presentation on the charter for the general public, tackling concerns and questions about the conversion.
In the front row sat MDUSD board member Cheryl Hansen, a Clayton resident.
Hansen didn't speculate on what the board might do when it votes on the charter proposal, likely in September, but she said she thought the explanations given during the meeting were more than satisfactory.
"I want to represent what's in the best interest of the community," she said. "I'm open to the option."
So far, public support for the charter has been substantial. A majority of CVHS teachers, parents and elected officials — all five members of the Clayton City Council — have endorsed it.
Though support in the Clayton area is expected to stay strong, it's possible that once the charter proposal gains more publicity districtwide, it could face significant resistance from other stakeholders in the MDUSD.
The issue is money. The district, which oversees 56 school sites, is in dire financial straits. It voted to close a in February and is projecting a 9.3 percent revenue shortfall this fiscal year.
The district board and charter advocates agree that if Clayton Valley becomes a charter school, the MDUSD would lose about $1.6 million. But charter proponents emphasize the district also will save money, since it will no longer be running Clayton Valley.
Public sentiment districtwide will become more clear once the MDUSD board holds public hearings on the issue. The first public meeting will be Aug. 9 at Monte Gardens in Concord.
The board is expected to vote on the proposal Sept. 13.
For a board that already has made unpopular decisions this year, including closing schools and making other budget cuts, it could prove politically difficult for members to block the charter if public support is strong.
"To be honest, it's up in the air," McChesney said in a June interview. "We hope very much to get approval at this level because we really want to work with the school district. But I honestly don't know."
If MDUSD says no, appeals are next
If the MDUSD board rejects the proposal, charter advocates might face a more receptive panel at the Contra Costa County Office of Education.
In February 2010, the MDUSD board rejected a charter proposal from the Flex Academy to open a new school.
The Flex Academy appealed the decision to the county office, which approved the charter in October by a 4-1 vote.
Clayton Valley charter advocates might have a stronger case than the Flex Academy did.
Unlike the Flex Academy Charter, which is a new charter school, conversion charters (when an existing school converts to a charter school) have much higher success rates. There hasn't been a public high school that has become a charter in California that has gone back to being a regular public school.
Three seats on the county board have changed since October's vote, and the board member who voted against the Flex Academy, Glenn Ruley, is no longer serving. One of the new members, Richard Asadoorian, represents Clayton.
If the county rejects the proposal, the decision can be appealed again, this time to the State Board of Education.
The state board has changed significantly since Gov. Jerry Brown took office at the start of the year. Brown has appointed seven new members, with only two Schwarzenegger appointees holding seats.
Traditionally, Republicans have been more in favor of charter schools than Democrats. However, Brown has been a supporter of charter schools, opening two while mayor of Oakland.
The state board has yet to decide on a conversion charter case, but a clue to how the board might rule on one came July 13, when members unanimously voted in favor of what's dubbed the "Parents Trigger."
The "trigger," a controversial law passed in 2010, allows parents to petition for new staff, management and programs at their children's schools. The first school to use the "trigger" was McKinley Elementary School in Compton. Parents there want to convert the school into a charter.
Going through the appeal process, even if approved, could come with consequences. Currently, the aim is to make Clayton Valley a charter school by the 2012-13 school year, but if the appeal process drags on the start date might have to be pushed back. As of now, charter advocates say they believe the CVHS will be a charter school for the 2012-13 year, even with the appeals.
Converting to a charter school could have an impact that reaches far beyond the immediate area.
In Los Angeles, Granada Hills High broke away from the Los Angeles Unified School District and became a charter in 2003. Soon, other Los Angeles suburban high schools — like Palisades, Birmingham Community, El Camino Real — followed suit, becoming independent charters.
A similar trend could happen with high schools in the MDUSD and in the Bay Area. With school district budgets tight, other communities could follow Clayton Valley's lead if CVCHS can show how a school benefits by no longer being tied to its local school district.
"Many educators in Northern California will see what is going on (at Clayton Valley) and will learn from the people who put this together, much like the people here learned from schools in Los Angeles," said Simmons, Clayton Valley charter's lawyer. "Success breeds more success, and if you're successful people will want to learn and replicate your success."