Resegregation Now, Resegregation Forever!

Are charter-school conversions the vanguard for public education or a scam for resegregating the learning experience and making a lot of money?

For the September 13 parent meeting, Chancellor and UTD pulled out all the stops. Two state representatives, Republicans Gaston Cantens and Ralph Arza, showed up, stumping shamelessly for the conversion. Union president Tornillo was present with a battalion of UTD and Chancellor reps. The school district, prodded by a handful of outspoken parents, sent its own heavy hitters to temper the marketing onslaught, such as (former) deputy superintendent of education Joe Mathos, (former) Schools of Choice administrator Magaly Abrahante, and the district's chief budget man Stan Corces.

The politicians offered canned platitudes about the need for "choices" in public education; they played up the school district's reputation for waste and corruption. Arza, prowling the front of the room like a football coach before a big game, ultimately concluded that the parents had nothing to lose by just going for it. "This is not like a sex-change operation," he crowed, drawing belly laughs from the audience. "You can go back. You have a choice!"

Still there were concerns. One father in the back of the room shouted his question to principal Herrman. "The charter schools I know of that succeed usually start out by cutting music, art, and squeezing out veteran teachers to reduce salaries," he accused. "What's so different about Chancellor?" Herrman pointed to Tornillo. "The reason is this gentleman right here," he replied. Tornillo, bespectacled, white-haired, and gravelly voiced, played the venerable union grandfather, a kind of tough-guy Ben Franklin. "I want to say, as president of UTD, I would notbe standing here and recommending that you consider a charter school if I thought in any way it would be detrimental to the teachers at Snapper Creek," he intoned. "We have no intention of throwing our members to the wolves."

Teachers union executive Merri Mann has mixed feelings about charter schools
Bill Cooke
Teachers union executive Merri Mann has mixed feelings about charter schools
Parents in Action member Denise Perry is afraid business and political interests have taken over the charter school movement
Bill Cooke
Parents in Action member Denise Perry is afraid business and political interests have taken over the charter school movement

The parents asked the district bureaucrats repeatedly if there was any reason they should not vote to convert their school. The bureaucrats queasily danced around the questions, aware that the state legislators and the UTD were watching closely to ensure they wouldn't say anything that might be construed as pressuring parents. The charter school law specifically prohibits school districts from trying to interfere with the decision to convert. Yet Mathos, Abrahante, and others hinted that the audience might not be getting full answers to their questions. "This is your meeting, not our meeting," Mathos shrugged. "I can't give you the answers. Our [budget] numbers show a deficit [of $500,000 under the company's charter plan] if that's what you want to hear. I can give you another reason -- did you get to vote on Chancellor as the company? I don't think you have all of the information. As far as I'm concerned, those teachers voted without full public disclosure."

A week later, 78 percent of the parents eligible to vote went for the conversion. Some parents and teachers allege that the process was deliberately manipulated by a flyer that was sent to their homes. "The letter read: “We need you to come out and vote to support our teachers,'" one instructor, who like others in this story insisted on anonymity, told New Times. "It didn't say, “Vote to convert to a charter school.' What parent would vote not to support their teachers?" Others noted the powerful message sent by having the person handing out ballots at the door tell parents to “please vote yes,' and by allowing the pro-charter assistant principal to sit at the voting table as parents handed in their ballots.

Tacey Kearin, mother of a fifth-grader at the school, believes the parents were misinformed and rushed into making a decision based on their trust in the teachers and a couple of rah-rah meetings. "Don't sell me on a blueprint that's under negotiation," she charges. "It's like, what are we voting on? No parent was involved on this. The PTSA never voted on charters. People in the community [other than parents] had no say in it, and not only that, they were not even informed about it." Leslie Coller, a parent in Miami Beach who is part of a task force considering Beach charter schools, says she was "shocked" that parents at Snapper Creek could have approved something as complex as a conversion in such a short period of time. "That whole thing was kind of a sham," Coller asserts. "If it's truly for the kids, it's got to be a real research project. I was disappointed in the way the union pushed this thing down those parents' throats." Herrman denies that anything was forced on parents or teachers, but he admits that the process was rushed because of the deadline to submit the application. "If I had it to do over again?" he muses. "Yes, obviously the more time you have to make a decision the better."

But last December the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the Snapper Creek charter school was stymied by the school board, which refused to accept the application after its staff complained that it had too many unresolved questions. Some board members expressed concern over rumors that teachers were pressured and parents were misinformed. Other members took the parochial view that no public schools should be able to convert to charters -- period. "I do not want to see any of my schools convert," sniffed school board member Manty Sabates Morse. "We spent our dollars on this school and then to just turn it over?"

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