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.' "
But by the end of October 2001, Tarr still hadn't heard any news from the school district, so he asked his attorney to get a progress report from the district's attorney. "And they got ahold of him, and he said, 'I haven't been given any documents yet.' So here we are, 30 days into it, and their attorney hasn't even received the documents. And this is after Pete has told his board that his attorney is looking at it. He had never given it to his attorney."
Tarr continues, "So then we started to try to push this thing, and our attorney started talking directly to their attorney. But every time we sent something their way, there was always a problem. No matter what it was, there was always a problem with it. And our attorney told me, 'This isn't usually so tough to get this stuff through.' "
"We weren't at all uncooperative," Schiff responds. "Our board said to me, 'Do what you can to help the charter school.' But again, when a charter is presented and you have a 60-day timeline, 30 days to hold a public hearing, and another 30 days to respond, and we have had no dialogue -- zip, zero, none, with the proponents... It was 'Here is our charter,' and it was scanty at best when it was first proposed. There was no budget associated with it, there was no curriculum associated with it, and those are two of the canons that the state says the local education agency must oversee. And the way the law is written, you have to document why you are not going to approve the charter, or you have to approve it. We were just having some difficulties with the timelines associated, and with the lack of specificity within the charter, and the lack, quite frankly, of understanding and cooperation from their legal staff, when they finally got one."
As the 60-day deadline approached, Tarr says it became clear that Ramona Unified was not going to meet it. So instead of going into a 30-day extension, he pulled the proposal and resubmitted it, which restarted the 60-day clock. "And then we get into December, and we are still haggling over the memorandum of understanding between us and the district. They kept adding stuff that made it more difficult for us to do what we had to do. One of the things that they put in there was that we had to have 100 students by July 1 signed up for us to stay in business, or they could pull the plug on us. We were all the way into January when we finally had a complete set of documents. We took it to the board on January 14, 2002. But, at the last minute, Pete adds a whole bunch of extra stuff into the resolution, things like them being able to look at our curriculum and decide whether or not our curriculum is correct. Well, the whole idea of having your own school is that our board looks at the curriculum, not their board.
"He was putting in as many roadblocks as he could," Tarr continues, "so that we could trip and he could pull the plug on us. We could see that, and we went before the board and said, 'We can't have this, we can't have that; if you are going to tell us that we have to do that, then just vote us down.' Because if they turned us down, we could have appealed to the county and gotten a vote at the county. And frankly, at this point, I would have appreciated it if they just turned us down, because the county wouldn't have given us so much grief over the long run."
But at that January meeting, the board approved a memorandum of understanding and Tarr's charter. The first order of business was to form a 501(c)(3) corporation "so that we would be able to get donations and all those kinds of things." The next was recruiting students.
"One of the things that we had put in the memorandum at the last minute," Tarr says, "about the only thing that was good for us, was that we asked for all the names and addresses of the graduating eighth graders, so that we could send our enrollment materials to them. Apparently Pete hadn't seen that in the last draft of the memorandum that went along, because when it came to February, I asked him, 'Hey, we need to get those names.' And he said, 'Well, I am not signing that memorandum; I am not going to give you those names.' And I said, 'The board approved it the same time that they approved the charter.' And he said, 'No, they didn't; all they approved was the charter. They did not approve the memorandum of understanding.' "
Tarr says he was partially relieved that Schiff would not sign the memorandum of understanding, because it meant items he felt were unfavorable to his cause were still under negotiation. But it also meant he did not get the names and addresses he requested.
"In their charter," Schiff says, "it proposed that they get them April 1 of a school year. But he then proposes to get them March 1. Well, I felt an obligation, and I reported that publicly to the board, and they concurred that we needed to send a letter to all eighth-grade parents saying we were going to release this information by April 1 unless they in fact told us not to. Well, it turned out to be April 3 or 4 or 5, but we met the spirit of that deadline."
Schiff also believes sending high school information to eighth graders before April -- when Ramona Unified sends such materials -- could be disruptive. "All of a sudden, they are focused on the high school instead of finishing up the eighth grade."
Tarr responds that there are still two months of school left in April. "By the time we got the names," he adds, "we were into April, and they had already mailed out all their stuff, and people were signed up for Ramona High School already."
Tarr believes the delay, at least in part, caused him to fall short of the enrollment of 100 his charter called for -- he started the 2002-2003 school year with 68 -- which damaged Sun Valley financially. Public schools are funded primarily by state money based on average daily attendance. "It comes out to about $5400 per child."
Initial funding for Sun Valley came from a $200,000 education loan from the state. "We wanted a $250,000 loan that charter schools can get," Tarr says, "but they wrote back and said, 'We will give you $200,000 because you don't need that much money, and you have got to pay back second and third year.' But when we realized we didn't have as many students as we had originally planned, we decided we would ask for the additional $50,000. We're still waiting on that and, frankly, we need the money."
The first $90,000 of the loan went into remodeling the building from a restaurant into a school. Since then, Tarr has operated Sun Valley on the remaining $110,000, some small donations, and average-daily-attendance money from the state, which, Tarr says, "wasn't as high as we had hoped. We had punker-type kids who we later heard were encouraged to come here. But they didn't want to be here; their parents wanted them to be here. We have a dress code that requires students to wear decent clothing, not have punker haircuts or piercings, and here are these kids that have all of that stuff. So we had a whole bunch of them pull out, and we were down from 67 to 58 or 59 within a few weeks. And then we had a few more kids that simply just were not working; they weren't turning anything in."
The school's final enrollment was 35, though the average daily attendance for the year was just below 50. "We've had to short a lot of things this year because we didn't have the money," Tarr explains.
One of the things Tarr shorted was his own salary of $4700 per month, which he deferred for the last three months of the school year. Things might not have come to that had the school received a $400,000 grant for which Tarr tried to apply. "Last year," he explains, "there was an opportunity for an implementation grant. It is federal money for charter schools only, but it is administered by the state. It is a $400,000 two-year grant. You get $200,000 the first year, $200,000 the second year. It is not to be applied to salaries or for the building. But you can use it for buying computers, for setting up your network, buying books, software, for the development of the curriculum, for laboratories -- all of those one-time expenses to get your school up and running. To get this grant, we had to turn in our stuff by August 16, 2002."
The grant application required a full explanation of the curriculum and the signature of Pete Schiff. He never signed it. Says Tarr, "That's $200,000 we would have had in our budget this year that we don't have. And now we're hurting."
Schiff responds, "August 6 of last year, I received a letter from Dave Tarr and a signature page for the grant. That was the first I knew of the grant. But I didn't get the grant itself. All I got was a letter saying, 'Pete, would you please sign this signature page and get it back to me.' I had no idea what the hell I was signing -- zip, zero, none. I had no idea whether there would be any possibility that the Ramona Unified School District would have to pay this back. So I pulled it up on the Internet, and the grant says that if you are going to apply, you have to submit a letter of intent. And you should share this letter of intent with the cosigner, the local education authority that has to sign off with you -- in this case, Ramona Unified. And that was due about July 1. I never saw it. And in the body of the grant agreement itself, it says, 'Share the grant that you are submitting with the co-signer 30 days before it is due, so that if there are any questions on anything, you can work it out.' That is right in the document itself. I called the state and they told me, 'You have oversight responsibilities. So if you are signing something that turns out to be grossly inappropriate, you may have the responsibility to pay that back.' And I thought, 'Okay, we are not going to sign something that we haven't seen.' I went down to Sun Valley Charter School and said, 'Dave, where is the grant?' He said, 'Well, I haven't written it yet, I am still working on it,' so I said, 'Then I can't sign this.' And then he said, 'You'll have the grant Saturday,' and then it was 'You'll have the grant Monday,' and then, 'You'll have the grant Tuesday.' In the meantime, we are trying to get ready to open up this 50-million-dollar business called the Ramona Unified School District. We have 1000 employees that we are dealing with. We had principals coming back. We had in-services that we were planning.
"On Tuesday before the Friday the grant was due," Schiff continues, "I happened to be working late, and I answered the door and got the grant from Mr. Tarr at 5:30 in the afternoon and see it for the first time. To do due diligence on it, I would have had to read it, and then I would have had to stop my assistant superintendent of human resources and ask him to read the grant, and ask the assistant superintendent of business to stop what he was doing, as well as our assistant superintendent of instruction. We would have all had to stop, read the grant, do our due diligence, and see if it was appropriate to sign, all on Wednesday, when we were presenting to our whole management team at a management retreat."
Tarr admits that he was playing catch-up with the grant process but pleads that the delays in approving the charter and supplying directory information had set him back. Still, he believes Schiff could have read and signed the grant if he had the will to do so. "I even went over on Thursday morning," Tarr says. "I found out that they were having a retreat; he was telling me that he doesn't have time to look at this thing, but he and all of his senior staff were out at the San Vicente Inn Country Club doing whatever they do at a retreat. I walked in with the documents and said, 'Do you have time to read this now? It is only 14 pages.' He stood there in his Hawaiian shirt and said, 'We're busy.' He flat-out refused."
Tarr contends that Schiff never wanted the charter school in his district to begin with. "The board, I think, liked the idea," he says. "Pete absolutely was against it. In fact, in one of his last-ditch efforts to try to get them not to vote for it, he said to the board, 'It will hurt us financially if we approve this charter school, because every kid they get is [average-daily-attendance] dollars out of our pocket.' He said that in a board meeting. It is on the tape."
To be able to open his doors next year Tarr needs to get an additional $50,000 loan from the state, raise $20,000 in private donations by the end of June, and have 95 students enrolled by the August 14 school-board meeting. At present, 22 eighth graders have signed up for ninth grade next year. And Tarr is expecting 33 of this year's ninth graders to enroll for their sophomore year. If he doesn't have another 40 kids signed up by August 14, he says, "Then we are going to have to make a decision about whether we are going to pull the plug."