A Sacramento County-based charter school will not be taking up residence in Lodi, after school district officials said the entity’s petition lacked financial transparency.
The Lodi Unified School District’s Board of Education on Tuesday voted 6-1 to deny a petition for Gateway Community Charters Inc.
Board member George Neely cast the lone vote to not deny the petition. However, his vote was not in favor of approving the charter, and no board member made a motion to approve one.
In the motion to deny the charter presented Tuesday night, district staff said Gateway had an unsound educational program for Lodi students, and were ‘demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition.’
In addition, district staff alleged that records requested through a California Public Records Act were not properly furnished; that Gateway violates the Brown Act by not giving satisfactory notice of public meetings; and filed tax returns with deceptive figures.
Specifically, the district said Gateway filed a tax-exempt-organization return that concealed about $2.5 million in expenditures that should have been listed elsewhere. Gateway staff said that number was a misprint and had been corrected before Tuesday’s meeting.
Governor Gavin Newsom in March approved Senate Bill 126, which requires charter schools to comply with the same open meeting and disclosure laws of public school districts.
Dr. Cindy Peterson, superintendent and chief executive officer of the charter school, said the accusations were false, and accused the district of not communicating properly with her staff during the application process.
Peterson said she and her staff had been communicating with LUSD Superintendent, Cathy Nchols-Washer, and were abruptly told the two parties would only interact through legal counsel. She further claimed she and her staff were never asked to produce records about administrative costs or salaries, or of anything pertaining to how her company operates.
However, she said Gateway complied with every other request present documentation, including contracts for program expenses, consultant expenses and tax returns.
“There is no hidden ‘anything,’” Peterson said. “We are the most transparent organization of any charter program you’ll ever see, probably more (transparent) than you’ll see in any other school district. We went out of our way to submit everything that was asked of us.”
Teachers and staff with the charter school said it was wrong to deny the petition when LUSD staff never met face-to-face with them, nor did anyone from Lodi set foot on its Elk Grove or Sacramento campuses to see the program in action.
Gateway principal Morri Elliott said Elk Grove Unified School District officials spent half a day with his staff in Sacramento, speaking with teachers and students to learn more about the program before approving a charter there.
“That is one of the most powerful, effective ways to see if a program is what it says it is,” Elliott said. “That is a normal experience that I’ve had. But we did not have that with Lodi.”
Elliott said Gateway serves students who have been disenfranchised by the academic process, or have been ‘left behind’ and need special guidance to continue their education.
According to the company’s website, its mission is to provide high quality curriculum, instructional support, career exploration and preparation for students in the community Gateway serves.
Brenda Vaccaro, a parent representative for Gateway, said her son was a high achieving student who struggled in a traditional school district setting and somehow lost interest in learning.
She said Gateway created an environment for her son that focused on achievement and belonging, something regular schools didn’t provide for him.
“Not only does (Gateway) offer the academic rigor that I think a lot of students need, but they also support the whole student,” Vaccaro said. “Not only do they attend to the academic part of a student, but it’s the connection with them (they create).”
Washer told the board that district staff did not visit either of the Gateway campuses because the reasons for denial presented Tuesday had more to do with the company’s financial discrepancies.
“The issues and concerns staff has noted in the petition were not issues or concerns that could be addressed by a visit or meeting,” she said. “They were legal issues, and those went to the responsibility of legal counsel.”
Board member Ron Freitas said while he applauded the charter school’s mission and it’s strong reputation in Sacramento County, he and his colleagues could not ignore the financial discrepancies district staff noted in its findings to deny the petition.
“While this program is working in other jurisdictions, I feel bound to the four corners of the petition,” he said. “And as our staff pointed out, there are falsehoods in it. Because of these deficiencies and our obligation not only to our district, but to our students ... I do not feel this board should be led to a conclusion and fill in the gaps when a petition is as deficient as this one.”
Board Vice President Joe Nava took exception to comments made by Gateway faculty and parents who said charter schools offer a more personal and caring environment for students than traditional school campuses.
“There is nothing earth-shattering this charter school will do that we don’t already do with our teachers,” he said. “We offer things in Lodi. We care for our students and we have such a good graduation rate that we don’t need another charter school in this district.”
Gateway officials on Tuesday said they were looking at leasing property near Thornton Road and Hammer Lane it had not secured if the charter were to be approved. While the proposed campus would be closer to Stockton, Gateway staff said the new campus would serve students from all over the school district.
Neely said he did not like the proposed location of the charter school, or the fact that Gateway had not secured the property before applying for inclusion into the district.
“I don’t think you guys should abandon this,” he said. “I like your style, your approach, your target audience. All of it. But to me, you’ve got to have all your ducks in a line before you start something like this.”
The board will hold a special meeting tonight (Thursday) to affirm the petition’s denial.
For more information about Gateway Community Charters, Inc., visit www.gccharters.org. Tuesday’s agenda can be viewed at esbagenda .lodiusd.net.