Parents and children at the September 7 Chula Vista Elementary School District meeting
  • Parents and children at the September 7 Chula Vista Elementary School District meeting
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More than 400 students attending Otay Ranch Academy of Arts, a charter school located on the Mater Dei property in eastern Chula Vista, might lose their campus if the Chula Vista Elementary School District refuses to authorize their program.

The academy is part of Harbor Springs Charter Schools, a branch of the Temecula-based Springs Charter Schools. The center opened its doors in 2014 and over the past four years has grown from 80 to over 400 students. They offer two programs: an in-class (K–8) and a home-school (K–12) option.

At issue: even though the academy operates in Chula Vista and 66 percent of its students live in the city, the charter is authorized by the Julian Union Elementary School District. That means Julian Union has collected the 1 percent in oversight fees.

What’s more, in February 2016 the Chula Vista Elementary School District sent the academy a cease-and-desist letter. The Union-Tribune reported, “The situation causes problems for the non-authorizing districts because they don’t benefit from the state funding tied to enrollment of the students attending a charter school approved by another district but operating in their backyard, and they have no educational or fiscal control over the campus.”

Harbor Springs transition plan sent to parents

Springs Charter administrators, however, argued that legally their learning centers could operate anywhere in the county as long as they were sponsored by any school district within that county. Then, a lawsuit ruled otherwise. In October 2016 a California appellate court said charter schools must be authorized within the school district where they reside. Now the academy needs to come into compliance with the court ruling.

In May 2017, Harbor Springs obtained a waiver from the state board of education to continue operations through June 2018. Once the school year ends, the fate of the academy hangs in the balance.

On Wednesday, September 7th, parents, students, and administrators packed the district board meeting. Many held signs that read, “I love my charter school.” Springs Charter superintendent Kathleen Hermsmeyer gave an informational presentation and mentioned that if the district sponsored the charter school, it would begin to receive the 1 percent oversight fee.

In public comments, scores of individuals praised the academy and its personalized student learning options. A parent explained, “Every child is unique, and my daughter is not geared to testing and exams…. It makes her really nervous and highly pressured, so Otay Ranch Academy for the Arts is really very suited for my daughter whose learning style is very different.”

One student said, “Our school’s different because we have no homework, which is less stressful for us and our parents.”

However, Susan Skala, the president of Chula Vista Educators, expressed reservations: “I’m concerned that this is a charter chain. I am concerned that it is a conglomerate under one board. Harbor Springs admin offices are in Temecula and it’s been operating for three years through a different school district and the only reason that it’s coming to Chula Vista right now is because of a legal judgment.”

The academy has a student-teacher-ratio of 28:1 and a full-time aide in every classroom from K–5. Because charter schools are not limited to school-district boundaries, Harbor Springs can accept students from the contiguous counties of San Diego, Riverside, and Orange County. If space is limited, they use a lottery system.

Trustees will vote next month after staff presents a detailed report. Tanya Rogers, assistant superintendent of business at Springs Charter, said, “We would like to be locally authorized because then we can act as partners with the local district.”

In an interview, Hermsmeyer added, “If it doesn’t get approved here, we can appeal to the county. If it doesn’t get approved in the county, we can appeal to the state. If none of those work, we actually have other options. One option is we can have this center at one of our contiguous county charters.”

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