San Diego First it was a country/western restaurant and dance hall. When that failed, it became a biker restaurant called the Roadhouse. For the past year, the low white building on the west end of Ramona's main street has housed Sun Valley Charter High School. But come fall, "For Lease" signs may go up in the windows again.
Such is the state of the fledgling school at which 35 students just completed their freshman year. The principal and founder of the school is David Tarr. In his mid-40s, Tarr's dressed in slacks, tie, and shirt with sleeves rolled up above the elbows of his large arms. The floor of his office is divided diagonally, half carpet and half hardwood. "It's the corner of the old dance floor," he explains, leaning forward onto his spartan metal desk. Behind him, on the wall hang an 8´´ by 10´´ of George W. Bush, a National Rifle Association sharp-shooting certificate, and diplomas from the University of California San Diego (a bachelor's in philosophy) and San Diego State (a master's in history.)
Prior to starting Sun Valley, Tarr taught history at National University and substituted in the Grossmont Union High School District. During the latter job, he became convinced that the standard system of textbooks and hopping from class to unrelated class wasn't helping many students, and he began to envision an integrated curriculum without textbooks. "I started talking to a couple of people," Tarr recalls. "My father, who was a longtime educator in the Grossmont district, and Byron Hall down at Escondido Charter School. We started to look at ways to connect everything...and we decided to start with history as our baseline, as the sort of unifying and connecting entity."
Tarr's curriculum also favored the Internet over textbooks. (Classrooms at Sun Valley feature a one-computer-per-child ratio, and tests, class work, and homework are done online. Teachers also correct work online.) He looked at the idea of launching the curriculum in a private-school setting, "But it is so hard to get up-and-running money in a private school. And you have to have a certain scale that you work on. So I looked at a public charter school because a charter school is free. People can bring their kids here and not have to pay tuition. That makes it a whole lot easier to get students."
In the summer of 2001, Tarr collected 750 petition signatures -- "more than the amount we needed" -- in front of stores in Ramona. The next step, by state charter school law, was to present the idea to the "local educational authority," in this case Ramona Unified School District. After that, by law, the school district has 60 days to review the charter. At the end of 30 days, the idea is assumed rejected unless a 30-day extension is mutually agreed upon. In the case of rejection, the charter proponents can bring their charter to the county board of education.
"What I wanted to do," Tarr says, "was to present to petition [as an agenda item] at a school-board meeting. I have been on other boards; I was on the water board up here for a while, so I know you have to have things on the agenda or you can't get action. But this is where I ran into my first snag. I called up and asked if I could place it on the agenda, and Pete Schiff, the superintendent, said, 'Well, no, we are not going to do that; you can just bring it up under nonagenda items.' I said, 'Well, I would really like it on the agenda.' He said, 'No, we'll just bring it up under nonagenda items.' "
So Tarr got a copy of the school district's policy regarding placing items on the board agenda. "Their policy is pretty clear; it says that you have to turn it in so many days ahead of the meeting, it has to be a written request, it has to be school-district business. So I gave a copy of what we had for the charter at that point, which was a fairly small document at that point, and I laid out the whole idea, all the elements that were required by law to be in a charter petition. But I didn't turn in the actual signatures, the official petition, because I didn't want the 30-day clock to start the day I turned that in. I requested that this thing be placed on the agenda to bring the full petition to the September meeting. So I called Pete back in a couple of weeks and said, 'Pete, is that going to be on the agenda?' And he said, 'No, you are just going to have to bring that up as a nonagenda item.' And I said, 'Well, it meets the criteria according to your policy and the education code.' So I went into his office to talk to him. And I said, 'Pete, according to the state education code and your policy, this thing should be placed on the agenda.' He replied, 'Well, that is not the way our attorney understands the policy.' And a couple of days later he called and said, 'Well, we don't have to put it on the agenda, but we are going to.' "
Peter Schiff, reached by phone at his office, said his reaction to the charter-school proposal was "It's the law, and we want to do that. But my understanding, from talking to other superintendents, is where there have been successful charters is where there has been dialogue between the sponsoring school district and the charter school, so that when you present to the board, you have a document in place. That didn't happen here, and it created some challenges in trying to get that worked out in an amicable way."
At the September 2001 board meeting of the Ramona Unified School District, the board instructed Schiff and his staff to work on the idea. "First," Tarr says, "they wanted a lot more detail on everything. So before the October meeting, I gave all that information to Pete, and I said, 'I would like this to come before the board so that they can see that we are making progress.' And when it came before the board, the documents weren't there, and Pete said, 'Well, our attorney is looking at it. I want him to look at it before I gave it to the board.' And the board at that point said, 'Well, we want our attorney to work with their attorney to make sure that this thing gets done so that we are not losing time.' "