County board upholds MH district decision to deny charter

Signs are held up in between some of the 66 speakers Tuesday evening during the public hearing for Navigator Schools charter petition at the Britton Middle School auditorium.

The usually stoic and composed James Dent, co-founder behind the Navigator School brand that won over public officials in Gilroy and Hollister, was visibly shaken Wednesday night as the Santa Clara County Board of Education voted 4-3 to uphold Morgan Hill Unified’s decision to deny his organization’s charter petition.
On the other side of the divided room inside the Santa Clara County Office of Education, a collective gasp of relief emerged from MHUSD administrators, board members, teachers and parent supporters in attendance among hundreds of others.
“I just couldn’t go against staff recommendation,” said County Trustee Joseph DiSalvo, openly conflicted between his very public stance on the benefits of collaboration between the two entities, versus the urging of county staff.
In the end, DiSalvo joined fellow trustees Darcie Green, Michael Chang and Anna Song (who listened in via tele-conference) in voting to deny Navigator’s petition on appeal before the county. President Leon Beauchman and trustees Grace Mah and Julia Hover Smoot, a Morgan Hill resident, were in favor of the Gilroy-based charter management company opening a third school within MHUSD boundaries.
“I think, obviously, the biggest losers of them all are the 180 kids that won’t be able to attend that Morgan Hill Prep School in 2014-15,” said Dent, who reserved his comments for Thursday morning after a draining, five-hour board session that ended with Navigator on the wrong side of a close vote.
“I think a golden opportunity was missed to not only go into Morgan Hill, but for us to start working directly with the county in a very positive relationship because they would be our authorizer,” Dent added.
That “positive relationship” was not the case when it came to Navigator leaders and MHUSD administrators. The two groups have jawed back and forth since last April on their different beliefs and approaches to teaching methods and student achievement outcomes.
All of the county board members, even those who voted to deny the petition, expressed their deepest wishes of future collaboration in Morgan Hill.
“I met with James Dent for an hour today (Wednesday) to talk about that possibility,” said Interim Superintendent Steve Betando, who is currently in negotiations with the MHUSD board to solidify a permanent extension to his one-year tenure that started in July 2013. “I told him that the first step would have to be him acknowledging that their are problems with his petition and program that have to be addressed.”
The county staff outlined 22 deficiencies in Navigator’s petition, most notably the organization’s lack of an English Language Advisory Committee (the reason Green said she could not vote for the charter) and the co-mingling of funds between Navigator’s two other charter schools (Chang’s biggest gripe).
County Superintendent Xavier De La Torre said he didn’t think the vote would be as close as it was since he “assembled an excellent group of educators” from the County’s Office of Innovative Schools, which gave careful analysis before recommending denial of Navigator’s petition.
“There isn’t anything that couldn’t be addressed, but we have the obligation to let the board know we were not confident with this petition,” De La Torre said. “Navigator is doing terrific things for their kids (in Gilroy and Hollister) … we expect to see them again.”
Dent, however, would not confirm Navigator’s next course. Rather, he did offer the two options of filing an appeal to the state’s board of education or resubmitting a new, revised petition to MHUSD for the 2015-16 school year.
“We’re going to meet with our board (of directors) next week and decide what our next course of action is going to be,” said Dent, who will also discuss Navigator’s future with fellow co-founders Sharon Waller, Karen Humber, Paul Nadeau and James Garguilo.
For parent and charter supporter Rosa Rojas, one of nearly 50 speakers at Wednesday’s board meeting in San Jose, the vote to deny Navigator’s petition – coupled with Rocketship Education’s withdrawal for consideration in Morgan Hill prior to any vote – was not welcoming news.
“Of course, I feel like I want to cry right now,” said Rojas, who has two high school-aged children and a younger son in fourth grade in Morgan Hill. “It’s for our children. It’s not for our parents. It’s for the kids and they need change.”
There are differing views as to what type of “change” is needed in Morgan Hill.
With no new alternative charter schools opening in 2014, MHUSD administrators have hung their hats on transforming two of the district’s low-performing elementary schools into magnet academies.
“I wish that the County Board of Education would visit some of the schools in Morgan Hill so they can see the programs we already have in place and hear about the programs we have planned for the future,” said MHUSD Board President Don Moody.
He took offense to county trustees’ claims that there is a huge problem inside MHUSD – which includes an achievement gap between poor students and their peers – which charter schools can help alleviate.
“I believe there is a serious, serious issue in Morgan Hill that needs to be solved,” said Green, looking at the MHUSD contingent of administrators and board members filling the first two rows. “I’m hoping you take very seriously the concerns of these parents.”
Hover-Smoot, one of three in favor of Navigator’s petition, pleaded with her fellow trustees to “vote for the powerless people” and allow their prayers to be answered in the form of a Morgan Hill Prep School.
“It is absolutely no secret here today that we have a group of people in Morgan Hill who are not being served,” Hover-Smoot said. “It’s wrong. It’s deadly wrong for us to allow this to continue even one more day.”
Beauchman echoed her sentiments.
“I’m going to vote for this. I don’t think it’s perfect. … But if we don’t start some place, we will get no place,” President Beauchman said. “We need to be bold enough to make that move.”
However, after shooting down trustee Mah’s motion to grant a two-year approval for a Navigator School in Morgan Hill, the board briefly adjourned before casting the same 4-3 vote to uphold MHUSD’s decision and deny Navigator from opening a charter school in Morgan Hill.

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