County board grills MHUSD, charter leaders at appeal hearing

The Morgan Hill Unified School District Board of Education from left, Superintendent Dr. Wes Smith, President Don Moody, Vide President Shelle Thomas, Ron Woolf, Claudia Rossi, Bob Benevento, Amy Porter Jensen and Rick Badillo.

Morgan Hill Unified School District’s decision to deny two charter school petitions went to trial on appeal Wednesday night in the courtroom setting of the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
Just as the debate has divided the Morgan Hill community in recent months, school district supporters sat in rows of chairs on one side of the room behind the MHUSD administration and board members. Supporters for Navigator Schools and Rocketship Education sat behind the charter leadership groups.
But for the first time, the tables were turned as MHUSD was subjected to the same microscope of scrutiny it has previously imposed on the two charter organizations vying to open schools in the city by 2014.
The County School Board, proceeding in the fashion of a prosecutor performing a cross examination, peppered MHUSD Interim Superintendent Steve Betando with questions about the performance of Latino students and their “glaring” shortcomings on state assessments compared to the White and Asian student populations.
County trustee Darcie Green openly confronted Betando for ignoring the statistics – pointing to the disparities among ethnic groups at Jackson Academy of Math & Music – that align with the beckoning calls of mostly low-income, Latino parents searching for answers as to why their children have half the chance of other students to succeed in school.
“What is frustrating to me and most worrisome is why you won’t just acknowledge that this exists. This exists,” said Green, whose comments were followed by an affirming applause. “Why are those parents not considered part of the community?…there is a value in validating the realities of people. That is their reality…why is that communication so broken?”
County trustee Leon Beauchman told Betando there was a very specific reason that drew the two charter companies to Morgan Hill rather than other areas such as Palo Alto, where state assessments don’t show the same deficiencies among particular student subgroups.
Founders James Dent of South County-based Navigator Schools and Preston Smith of Redwood City-based-Rocketship were not excluded from the County Board’s tough questioning, forcing them to defend exactly why they believe their schools can do a better a job than the traditional public schools in Morgan Hill.
“I thought we finally had the opportunity to get out our message to open ears,” said Dent, who has grown increasingly frustrated with MHUSD while still maintaining his desire to work cooperatively with the district to close the achievement gap.
“That message is that charter schools don’t have the answer to all the problems and public schools don’t have the answer to all the problems,” Dent continued. “It’s the combination of all of us working together that will come up with best solution.”
The Morgan Hill community turned up in droves to show their support for what many argue is quality education already offered within MHUSD schools – most staying for the entire duration of the near six-hour proceedings.
Beauchman, who commended the community for their presence and involvement, also pointed out the Board can only use the guidelines in the state charter law to make their ruling on a petition.
Approximately 66 speakers, which included MHUSD teachers, administrators, Board of Education trustees, parents, students and alumni, walked up the middle aisle that separated the opposing groups and made their voices heard at the podium. Their message was unified: Uphold and respect MHUSD’s decision to deny Navigator Schools and Rocketship Education from opening schools in MHUSD’s small, tight-knit community where the district is handling matters just fine on its own.
In contrast, 39 speakers stepped up asking the County to overturn MHUSD’s decision and give their children additional educational opportunities.
Wednesday’s public hearings did not end with a vote on either charter petition. That will not come until December at the very earliest, and quite possibly not until the first week in January.

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