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Backers of parent trigger law score victory in court

A Superior Court judge has ruled that a Mojave Desert school board illegally rejected a parent petition to turn over an elementary school to a charter, in a major victory for supporters of California’s parent trigger law.

In a decision made public Monday, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Steve Malone ruled that the Adelanto School District improperly allowed 97 parents at Desert Trails Elementary School to rescind their signatures, which caused support for the petition to drop below the required 50% threshold.

Under regulations adopted last fall by the state Board of Education, Malone ruled, the parent trigger law does not allow recisions and explicitly states that parents "shall be free from ... being encouraged to revoke their signatures on a petition."

Malone also ruled that the regulations restricted a school district's duty in reviewing petitions to verifying eligible signatures only — not to invalidate those from parents who change their minds.

The question of whether signatures can be revoked has been one of the most bitterly contested issues of the state's pioneering parent trigger law, which allows parents at persistently low-performing schools to petition to overhaul staff and curriculum, close the campus or turn management over to a charter operator. Charters are independent, publicly financed schools.

Although the law was passed in 2010, only two school districts so far have launched parent trigger campaigns — Compton and Adelanto. In both cases, some parents have revoked their initial support of the petition after the campaigns became embroiled in bitter charges and countercharges of deceit and harassment.

Gabe Rose of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles nonprofit that lobbied for the law and assisted the petition campaigns in both cities, said the court ruling against recisions "takes away the key tactic of defenders of the status quo: to bully and trick parents into rescinding their signature."

But Carlos Mendoza, Adelanto school board president, said he will recommend that the board appeal the decision.

Mendoza said he did not oppose a charter school per se, so long as the school board and community have input into the choice of an operator. But he said he remained concerned that Parent Revolution and the affiliated parent group, Desert Trails Parent Union, had misled parents by presenting two petitions for them to sign. The first asked for district reforms, while the second requested a charter school.

Organizers had told parents that the preferred option was district reforms and that as leverage to get them, the charter school petition was also being circulated.

"We are concerned about bait and switch, that they can do it and get away with it," Mendoza said.

In January, petition supporters submitted 466 signatures for a charter campus - which represented 70% of the 666 students enrolled at the time.  But the board invalidated 218 of them , driving down the support to 37%.  The petition was resubmitted in March but the board ruled that it still fell short and rejected it.

In his July 18 ruling, Malone found that the Adelanto district did have the authority to throw out 17 other signatures it could not verify, but that the petition still succeeded in meeting the 50% threshold. He also found that the petition's failure to list Desert Trails Parent Union as a supporter was a technical omission and the petition substantially complied with the law.

The judge noted that  Desert Trails has been classified by the state as a failing school for the last six years and ranked as the worst elementary school in the Adelanto district.  According to state standardized test results, 72% of sixth-graders were not at grade level in reading and 70% were not proficient in math.

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— Teresa Watanabe

 
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