[Cross-posted from OC Daily]
Last week, the California Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Palm Lane Elementary School parents in the Anaheim Elementary School District’s lawsuit against their charter school petition. The AESD, in conjunction with the public school unions, has been fighting these parents throughout this process, which is going on three years.
One of the most egregious examples of the district’s subterfuge is how it set-up the charter petition verification process to fail.
The parents group submitted its petition on January 14, 2015. Under the Parent Trigger Law, the AESD could conduct the signature verification process – although it is not required to be the verification agent. The district opted to verify the signatures itself. However, after reading the trial court’s description of how it was conducted, the most likely conclusion is the process put in place by the AESD was incompetent by design in hopes the number of valid signatures would come up short. At best, it was going through the motions.
Here’s how the court describes the verification process:
The District also argues the trigger petition was properly rejected because the Petitioners failed to collect the requisite number of signatures under Education Code section 53300, which requires “at least one‑half of the parents or legal guardians of pupils attending the school, or a combination of at least one‑half of the parents or legal guardians of pupils attending the school and the elementary or middle schools that normally matriculate into a middle or high school, as applicable, sign a petition requesting the local educational agency to implement one or more of the four interventions.” The District informed the Petitioners that, through its verification process, the trigger petition was short 12 signatures.
The trial court disagreed with the District’s rejection of the trigger petition on that ground. The court found:
“The Respondents have declared that the Petitioners submitted 355 verified signed petitions (sometimes called valid petitions) but needed to submit 367 such petitions to meet the requirements of the Act. . . .
“Under the Act and its related regulations, the Respondents as an LEA [(local educational agency)] may verify signatures on petitions, but they are not required to do so; and if they undertake to do so their efforts must be reasonable. [Citation.]
“I find that the process set up and utilized by Respondents was unreasonable, unfair and incomplete.
“The process was developed by a temporary employee (Evelyn Gutierrez) who was given no training or education about the Act, the Regulations or the importance of what she was being asked to do. She had no background, training or experience in handwriting analysis or comparison. She was not supervised in any meaningful regard. She received no written procedures to follow. She had to develop the script she used when calling parents phone numbers. The deficiencies in the process used were substantial; so substantial that it made it an unreasonable, arbitrary, capr[i]cious and unfair process. In fairness it must be noted that Ms. Gutierrez did her best in the situation into which she was placed.
“The result of this defective process was that valid signed petitions were not counted. Ms. Gutierrez testified to several petitions she rejected that on reflection should have been determined valid. In addition she testified that a number of petitions were placed by her in a ‘pending’ status because she could not reach the parent signatory or for some other reason. Someone, not Ms. Gutierrez, later decided to improperly classify those petitions as invalid.
“A brief description of the signature verification process is in order. Ms. Gutierrez would call the phone number twice to try and reach a parent signatory. She called between approximate[ly] 8:30AM and 4:30PM. If she could not reach the person, she would put them in ‘pending’. If she reached the parent she inquired about their signing the petition. Calling only during normal working hours for the parents decreased the probability of making contact.
“Some persons reached by phone said they had signed; others said their spouse signed; others said they could not recall if they signed and finally some denied they had signed.
“Some children had separate petitions signed by each parent. If the first petition signature could not be verified there was no attempt to look at the other signed petition to verify the accuracy of the signature on that petition.
“In sum, there are numerous deficiencies in the process. The result of the flawed process was that valid signatures sufficient to reach and exceed the 50% threshold were improperly excluded.
“In the interest of brevity I attach and include a list of 29 students and parents utilized in argument and entitled ‘Improperly Invalidated Petitions (Child/Parent)’. I have independently evaluated the evidence relating to some but not all of the 29, stopping once a total of 23 additional valid signed petitions were established. Inasmuch as the Respondents determined and found the Petitioners were 12 valid petitions short there is no need to go further. The Petitioners needed 367, the Court finds they presented a minimum of 378. Using the aforementioned chart, the Court determines the following numbers referenced thereon were valid petitions: 1‑7; 9; 13‑24; 27‑29. The Court does not reach items 25 and 26.”
In the opening brief, the District does not challenge the court’s findings that the trigger petition, in fact, contained the requisite number of valid signatures and does not directly address the court’s findings regarding valid petitions that the District determined invalid before rejecting the trigger petition. Instead, the District defends its process and argues there was “insufficient evidence to demonstrate a miscount by the District as of the February 19, 2015 Board determination” and further argues that if only the Petitioners had taken advantage of the District’s offer to resubmit the trigger petition, this litigation could have been avoided.
In any event, the Petitioners introduced evidence that paralegal and notary public Sunny Ellen Lee was tasked with verifying the signatures of parents. She testified about the process that she had utilized. Lee testified, inter alia, that she had obtained eight signed declarations (seven of which she had notarized) verifying parent signatures, that were rejected by the District, representing 13 pupils. Four other parents (representing a total of five children) declined to sign a declaration but confirmed to Lee that they had signed the trigger petition.
Substantial evidence therefore supported the trial court’s finding that the trigger petition satisfied the parent signature requirement.
The AESD assigned a high-profile, sensitive and important task to a temp with no training to complete the task effectively. There was no attempt to contact parents after work hours, and the district overruled the temp and changed “pending” signatures to “invalid.” In the courtroom, the AESD no longer maintained its earlier pretense that the charter petition lacked sufficient signatures; that ruse served its purpose at the February 19, 2015 AESD Board of Education meeting at which the trustees rejected the petition.
Is it any wonder the Palm Lane parents have zero trust in the district administration? If another Parent Trigger charter petition is ever submitted to the Anaheim Elementary School District, how can the public have any confidence in the integrity of the process? It ought to be shocking that a public agency would so blatantly manipulate the integrity of what is supposed to be a fair, equitable and honest process. However, it comes as no surprise to anyone who has observed the lengths to which the public education establishment will go to protect its power and control.