Tanida Plamintr, whose 5-year-old son would have started first grade at Promise Academy, stands outside the Tech Interactive museum in San Jose, which would have been a partner of the school. "Why shouldn't our children be the next CEOs of technology?" she asked. (Photo by John Fensterwald/EdSource)

Increasing school expenses and declining enrollments have heightened tensions between charter schools and school districts in California. From Oakland to Los Angeles and San Diego, districts with the largest numbers of charter schools, the fights over buildings are becoming more fraught, charter renewals more contested, positions of school boards more entrenched.

Perhaps few disputes have matched the intensity of the one centered on Promise Academy. The charter school group, backed by heavy philanthropic support, wanted to open a K-8 engineering- and science-focused school for low-income students in downtown San Jose, where high-tech firms, led by Google and Adobe, plan to add more than 25,000 jobs within the next decade.

But then San Jose Unified told Promise Academy that it wouldn’t get the building it was counting on. So days before it was to open on Aug. 12, Promise Academy’s staff notified families of nearly 100 students that the school they had signed up for wouldn’t open. The following Monday, Aug. 19, a few parents who hadn’t checked their emails or voice messages brought their children, in uniform, for the first day of a school that didn’t exist.

The response from parents was a combination of anger, frustration and panic, said Principal Samantha Hanlon, whose suddenly unemployed team of a dozen staff, including six teachers, has been scrambling to find spots in other charter and district schools for the students. They included Hanlon’s 5-year-old daughter Audrey. “It’s been heartbreaking,” Hanlon said.

As with nearly everything in their contentious two-year dealings, San Jose Unified and Promise Academy blamed each other for the demise of the proposed school.

In a press release, San Jose Unified said Promise Academy didn’t have enough students to open and chided the school for not being straightforward about its failed enrollment efforts. “We have had ongoing concerns about Promise’s enrollment projections. The amount of time lost and the wasted taxpayer dollars could have been avoided had Promise been transparent about their enrollment from the beginning,” Superintendent Nancy Albarrán said.

Hanlon and the school’s backers denied that Promise didn’t have enough students to open and said San Jose Unified had no basis to make that claim. It accused the district of overcharging for building space that a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge had ordered the district to provide, negotiating in bad faith and citing a technicality to deny Promise Academy a chance to open.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who had supported the school, was unambiguous about who he thought was at fault. “I find it outrageous and unacceptable that San Jose Unified would leave 100 kids scrambling to find a school only days before their first classes,” he said in a statement. “This decision by the district undermines the reasonable demands of mostly low-income parents for a high-achieving public school option for their children.”

Over the next month, the Legislature will determine the fate of a highly contested bill that would amend the state charter school law to give local school boards more power to deny a new charter school based on its impact on a district. But regardless of what happens in Sacramento, battles over charter schools will continue to be fought in the trenches locally. There, districts have leverage over building leases and the law’s gray areas compound frustration.

Promise Academy had proposed a transitional kindergarten-through-eighth-grade charter school. The Tech Interactive museum in downtown San Jose agreed to be a partner and help develop the curriculum. Two big-name organizations that underwrite innovative charter and district schools — NewSchools Venture Fund and Silicon Schools Fund — seeded hundreds of thousands of dollars to plan the school, reach out to parents and develop the staff.

“We were confident Promise would be a gem of a school for downtown for families who wanted another option,” said Brian Greenberg, CEO of Silicon Schools Fund.

The funders recruited Anthony Johnson, a teacher and founding principal of a career technology high school in Modesto, to create the school and meet regularly with downtown parents. A year ago, he hired Hanlon, a seven-year charter school administrator, to be principal.

Parents like Tanida Plamintr, who had been involved in planning the school since January 2017, bought into the vision that high-tech could be for her kids, too. “Why shouldn’t our kids be the next tech CEOs?” she said. “The parents were ready; the teachers were ready. All we needed was the keys to the school.”

A history of conflict

A year ago, EdSource highlighted Promise Academy’s struggles to open the campus.

After San Jose Unified denied the charter, saying it had an unsound program, Promise Academy appealed. The Santa Clara County school board rejected it on a split vote, then Promise won the State Board of Education’s unanimous approval in January 2018.

The school applied for facilities in the district, as it was entitled to under voter-approved Proposition 39. After it supplied the signatures of more than 200 families that expressed interest, San Jose Unified challenged the names, calling parents to affirm their intent to enroll their children and crossing off names they couldn’t reach. By the district’s count, the total was below the minimum needed for a building request.

Promise Academy then sued the district, alleging the district arbitrarily weeded out students. In June 2018, Superior Court Judge Thang Barrett agreed. He ordered the district to provide space and awarded lawyers’ fees to the school.

Promise Academy requested space in a downtown elementary school near where most parents lived. The district instead offered it a former middle school, Allen at Steinbeck, seven miles away in south San Jose. Uncertain if the families could make the daily commute, Johnson canceled plans to open that fall.

The school resubmitted its request for facilities for 210 students on Oct. 31 for the 2019-20 year.

The district formally responded at the end of March, offering the same middle school space and included a facilities use agreement, spelling out details of the lease.

Promise Academy accepted the space offer so that it would have a legal right to the facility but also filed another lawsuit over the proposed annual $441,000 cost of leasing the space. The district said it had set the same rate it charged other charter schools and organizations like the YMCA — $11 per square foot for each student living in the district and $22 per square foot for every student from outside San Jose Unified. The charter law allows that distinction.

The dispute was over student numbers and ratios, which are challenging to predict nine months before a school opens. Promise Academy projected that 189 students would live in the district, based on intent-to-enroll forms for 158 students. The district questioned the students’ ages, addresses and eligibility of families and, as it had done the year before, whittled down the number to only 68 in-district students — not enough to force the district to offer a building.

Leading up to a court hearing in May, the district and school discussed a possible settlement, including a huge cut in the lease price and lawyers’ fees. But, given the history of mistrust, Promise Academy wasn’t willing to waive its legal rights and rejected the offer.

A no-negotiations offer

After Promise Academy formally accepted the Prop. 39 space at the end of April, relations turned frosty, with limited communication. The school proposed several revisions to the facilities use agreement. One would have cut the number of classrooms from seven to four to reduce costs, but the district didn’t respond in writing and made it clear in meetings it wouldn’t change the agreement, said Sarah Kollman, Promise Academy’s attorney for the lawsuits.

The charter school law says agreements should be negotiated as part of the Proposition 39 process, Kollman said. “I’m not aware of any school district that has ignored that obligation. It’s illegal.”

Feeling pressure with the school’s impending opening, Johnson signed the use agreement with no changes on July 29 and resubmitted it again the next day. Promise Academy never heard back. It was then that the district cited a technicality: Promise Academy had not included all of the exhibits. The corrected version was too late to meet a 10-day deadline before the opening of school, so it was invalid.

The district showed a “callous disregard” of families with that decision, said Gary Larson, CEO of Larson Communications, which has coordinated Promise Academy’s response to the news media.

San Jose Unified officials say Promise Academy has been disingenuous. “They’re scapegoating San Jose Unified,” said spokesman Ben Spielberg. “They were stalling to sign the lease because they didn’t have enrollment. Our track record is clean.”

On Aug. 16,, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Helen Williams gave both sides something to cite in her decision on Promise Academy’s lawsuit from December. Although the ruling is moot at this point, she said there were 98 legitimate signatures — enough to qualify for a building — but deferred to the district in disallowing the rest of the in-district signatures, resulting in a more expensive lease.

It’s very possible that Promise Academy wouldn’t have enrolled 189 students. But Hanlon said nearly 100 families filled out a lengthy registration form and the school was confident several dozen more students would enroll. Promise Academy signed a lease knowing that it would face a penalty under Prop. 39 of $2,000 per student for every unfilled seat.

Hanlon said Promise Academy made the financial commitment. It would have weathered the first year, provided parents the school they’d been promised and been in a position to grow, she said.

Hanlon said that Promise Academy’s board of directors is exploring legal options and has not ruled out another effort to open the school in the fall of 2020, whether in private or district facilities. But it will need the state board’s permission to push back the opening again.

It may have to get its request in quickly. AB 1505, the main charter-restriction bill that the Legislature will soon vote on, would, depending on when it would take effect, all but terminate the State Board of Education’s power to approve and monitor charter schools that, like Promise Academy, it approved. That authority would likely revert to San Jose Unified.

Story originally published by EdSource.