Proposed Albert Einstein Elementary charter to get a new hearing

The Saugus Union School District is set to hold a third hearing on Sept. 19 regarding a petition to establish an Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts & Sciences (AEA) charter elementary school in Santa Clarita. 

If approved, the school would be the second in the AEA family of charter schools, along with a charter high school in Santa Clarita that started its third year in August. It would also be one of a handful of charter schools on the West Coast where Hebrew is taught as a second language. Classes in Mandarin would also be offered. 

The Saugus Union district’s five-member governing board rejected two earlier petitions for the same AEA elementary school, voting unanimously in March 2011 and on a 4-1 vote in June 2012. In the past two years, petitions to establish AEA elementary charter schools have also been denied by three other school districts.

In its latest denial, the 37-page staff report adopted by the Saugus board found that the AEA petition presented an “unsound educational program for the pupils” and that the “petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program.” 

Jeffrey Shapiro, executive director of the AEALAS Foundation, a nonprofit entity designed to develop and support AEA schools, said that a modified petition, submitted to the district on Aug. 27, addressed “each and every one” of the concerns raised in the June staff report. 

Faced with what it called “a complicated and sometimes frustrating process of seeking approval for a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade charter school in the Saugus Union School District,” the AEALAS Foundation has launched a concerted public relations effort in support of its petition for a Santa Clarita elementary charter school. 

An “Approve the Einstein Charter” Facebook page was established in August; as of Sept. 11, the page had garnered 274 “Likes.” Earlier this month, California State Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita) wrote a public letter in support of an AEA elementary school charter. 

The AEA high school in Santa Clarita first opened its doors in the fall of 2010 with 200 students in seventh, eighth and ninth grades. As of this fall, AEA high school has 375 students enrolled in grades seven through 11. In early 2012, the high school received a five-year renewal from the William S. Hart Union High School District, and a three-year accreditation from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).

The proposed AEA elementary charter school aims to eventually enroll 500 students. According to Shapiro, 1,000 families have expressed interest. If the current modified petition is approved, the elementary school will begin classes in August 2013. 

The governing board is not expected to vote at next week’s public hearing; according to Shapiro, votes are typically taken approximately 30 days later.

Public money for Jewish schools: Free not-quite-but-sort-of Jewish education

At the Ben Gamla school in Hollywood, Fla., students can get kosher food in the cafeteria, and many wear kippahs to school. They engage in acts of chesed, they worry about speaking lashon hara, and they are taught to treat each other and their teachers with derech eretz. But administrators at the school say that using those Hebrew words to describe the universal values of kindness, not gossiping and respecting one another doesn’t make this a Jewish school. In fact, it is not allowed to mean students are getting a Jewish education, because Ben Gamla is a kindergarten through eighth-grade public charter school funded by the State of Florida’s taxpayers.

Ben Gamla is currently entering its second year, with 600 students enrolled and many more who didn’t get in. Ben Gamla is one of several nascent efforts to found Hebrew-language charter schools and has caught the attention of Jewish parents, including some in Los Angeles, who have begun to lay the groundwork for a school here.

Publicly funded Hebrew instruction is seen by some as an important component for the future of Jewish education, either as an alternative to a costly private Jewish education or as a way to reach the significant minority of Jewish children who are not getting any Jewish education at all. Others are simply excited about creating an academically excellent public school where children can graduate fluent in Hebrew.

The movement to create such schools got a high-profile bump last May when the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life in ALTTEXTNew York, the philanthropic entity behind some of this generation’s most innovative and successful programs, threw its backing behind a Hebrew charter start-up in Brooklyn.

But where some see innovation, others see a duplicitous and threatening end-run around the Constitution, trying to get the state to fund what almost amounts to a religious day school. Critics say enterprises like Ben Gamla, the first Hebrew-language charter school in the country, are a lose-lose proposition: If the school is teaching Hebrew stripped of its Jewish resonance, as required by church-state separation, the Hebrew language and Jewish education suffer. Conversely, if too much of the cultural context or flavor of Judaism seeps in, the school threatens to breach the church-state wall Jews have spent decades fortifying.

They also worry, with good reason, that free Hebrew schools — where not all, but most of the kids are Jewish and some Jewish culture is embedded in the curriculum — will threaten existing day schools and congregational schools.

The debate, while important in formulating a community approach, will not determine whether these schools are founded. Charter schools — paid for by school districts, but run privately — can be established by anyone with enough vision, energy and startup money to make it happen. Spanish and Japanese charter schools already are flourishing in Los Angeles, and Arabic, Greek and Chinese schools are among those succeeding elsewhere.

Now, at least two separate efforts by parents in Los Angeles have begun pursuing Hebrew charter schools.

“This is going to happen, whether we do it or someone else does it,” said Tanya Mizrahi Covalin, a former journalist for NBC News who is laying the foundation for a Hebrew language elementary school in Venice Beach. Covalin calls Hebrew an integral part of her identity; she grew up in Montreal and her husband is from Mexico City. Their three small children speak English, French and Spanish, and Covalin and her husband speak Hebrew when they don’t want the kids to understand.

“Talk about the American dream,” she said of the charter school process. “I can make the school I want for my kids. I can put in the elements I want and find amazing people to help make it happen.”

Covalin envisions a progressive, developmentally directed program with a strong Hebrew language component, located, most likely, in the Venice area. She doesn’t have a firm timeline, but has already paired up with some forward-looking educators to generate the vision and plans necessary for applying to the school board for a charter.

A separate group of parents, many of them day school parents, have been discussing for about a yearthe notion of a Hebrew language charter as an alternative to costly day school education.

Covalin doesn’t see her vision as a Jewish endeavor at all, and she has not attempted to engage Los Angeles’ organized Jewish community. But if the plans move forward, Covalin’s school will find itself at the center of an educational experiment that will most likely have a significant impact on existing Jewish institutions and Jewish families across the city.

“The leadership, lay and professional, of the Jewish community in Los Angeles and in any other places where they are building these schools should work together from the beginning to make sure they understand everything, make sure they work in a collaborative manner, not one against the other,” said Moshe Papo, executive director of the Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education in Broward County, Fla.,where Ben Gamla is located. “Work together to make sure it is suitable for your community, or you will wake up in the morning and find out it’s not good for you and it’s hurting your schools.”


The Charter Reform Debate

The Los Angeles of today is the United States of tomorrow. We are a big city, a vibrant city, a rapidly changing city. We are fortunate to have the cleanest big-city government in the country. Our current charter provides a system of governing ourselves that encourages flexibility, diversity and innovation, while protecting us from corruption through a system of checks and balances. Like all democracy, it is sometimes inefficient and sometimes slow in order to allow for the resolution of disagreements and the opportunity to hear from whomever wants to be heard.

Some people now argue we must change the charter. Many people worked very hard to devise a replacement charter. While we owe them our thanks for their hard work, I believe the voters should reject the overall result. Those provisions that do merit adoption should be added to our existing charter in subsequent ballots.

Charter reform advocates say city government is in crisis because the charter is more than 70 years old. This is a completely bogus argument. The U.S. Constitution is more than 200 years old. The Magna Carta is nearly 800 years old. And what about the Torah? Should we throw them all out because they are old?

Charter reform supporters have noble goals; unfortunately, the revised charter they have proposed will have the opposite effect from what its authors intended. Specifically:

Those revising the charter claim the new document will “streamline” government. In fact, it will create a whole new bureaucracy and mandate other new expenses, which will add to the cost of government. The new charter is estimated to raise the cost of government by a minimum of nearly $5 million a year. But no money is identified to cover these costs, which means the funds will come from police and fire services, parks, libraries, tree-trimming, street repair and other municipal services.

Charter reform supporters try to “increase accountability” by focusing control in the hands of one elected official, the mayor. In fact, their proposal would decrease accountability by making it more difficult for voters to influence decision-making. It requires far more voters and much more money to influence a citywide election than a council election. The mayor is also far less visible and accessible than individual councilmembers, who face voters on a daily basis in their neighborhoods. And with term limits in place, the only opportunity “to hold the mayor accountable” would be to vote for someone else at the end of his or her first four-year term.

Although charter reform advocates say the new charter will “bring elected officials closer to the neighborhoods,” in fact, it will make officials more remote. The new charter will insert a whole new bureaucracy between elected officials and the neighborhoods. Today, all the organizations in my district quite properly feel entitled to advise me, and most of them do quite frequently. Under the new charter, a new citywide appointed commission will oversee a new department, which in turn will prepare a set of guidelines defining what kinds of groups will be “neighborhood advisory councils.” Homeowner associations, block clubs and other existing groups will have to reconstitute themselves under the bureaucrats’ rules or duplicate their efforts.

The proposed new charter will undo the will of the people by eliminating important charter provisions recently adopted by the voters. Here are two examples:

1) The Animal Services Department has, since 1993, been governed by a citizen commission. Before that, it was merely another department that reported directly to the mayor. At the request of members of a number of humane organizations, I sponsored and the voters approved a charter amendment that gave real power to what had previously been a purely advisory commission. The proposed charter will overturn that structure and, once again, cut animal protection advocates out of the picture.

2) In 1991, the voters overwhelmingly adopted a charter amendment to provide authority for the City Council to step in when commissioners of the Harbor, Airport, or Department of Water and Power made questionable decisions. The proposed new charter would remove that oversight by preventing the City Council from changing any decisions made by these commissions.

Although supporters of the proposed charter say centralizing control will improve city services, in fact, giving the mayor the unilateral right to fire any department or commissioner guarantees an end to independent professional judgment. Fearful of mayoral retribution, department heads are already reticent to tell councilmembers about shortfalls in the mayor’s budget proposals. Under the proposed charter, it would be virtually impossible for the council to work with department heads to approve a budget with enough money for street sweeping, pothole repair and animal control.

While there are some provisions in the proposed charter that do merit adoption, they can be adopted without throwing out the protections we now enjoy. In fact, the supporters of the new charter are already pushing amendments such as increasing the size of the city council.

In conclusion, if you want to maintain clean government with its checks and balances, and you don’t want to reduce vital city services by siphoning funds to create new bureaucracies, please join the United Firefighters of Los Angeles, the Police Protective League, Service Employees International Union Local 347, Councilmembers John Ferraro, Hal Bernson, Jackie Goldberg and me in voting no on the proposed charter.

An Argument For

By Mike Feuer, Councilmember, 5th District

I support the charter reform proposal on the June 8 ballot (Charter Measure 1) because it would create advisory neighborhood councils and area planning commissions, clarify lines of authority among the mayor, council and appointed commissions, mandate performance audits of city departments and programs, strengthen the Police Department Inspector General, and provide greater flexibility for managing resources. The new charter also could improve constituent service by making council districts smaller and more manageable.

These are the kinds of changes we need, to make city government more responsive, accountable and efficient. Moreover, the charter proposal is the product of a truly democratic process that integrated the opinions and expertise of two separate reform commissions and hundreds of diverse stake holders. It represents progress, and it’s the best chance at reform we’re likely to have for a long time.

The charter is the constitution of the city of Los Angeles, establishing the powers of elected officials and the rules by which city government operates.

The present charter was drafted 74 years ago and ratified by a vote of the people. Amendments over the years have expanded the document to more than 700 pages. Many people believe that the present charter is cumbersome, confusing and out of date, and, as a result, government does not function at its best.

The city launched an effort two years ago to rewrite the charter from scratch. Two commissions, one created by the council and appointed by city officials, the other created by the mayor and elected by the people, were established to take on the job.

The process could have led to two incompatible charter proposals, dooming the chances of reform. But instead, after intense negotiation and compromise, the two commissions agreed on a unified charter.

The new charter makes government more responsive, in part, by creating advisory neighborhood councils composed of homeowners, renters, business people, educators, civic organizations, ethnic leaders and others.

Through my work with two neighborhood councils that I’ve established in the 5th Council District, I know that elected officials make better decisions when they’re informed by organized neighborhood participation. The new charter wisely leaves the details of these councils up to a seven-member citizen commission and to neighborhoods themselves.

Neighborhood land-use decisions under the new charter would be made by area planning commissions composed of local residents that would replace the present citywide Planning Commission. Both the Airport and Harbor commissions would have seats reserved on them for residents near those facilities. These changes would enhance self-governance.

The new charter also makes government more responsive by giving voters the option of expanding the size of the City Council. The present 15-member body represents 3.7 million people; today, the 5th District alone numbers more than 260,000. Residents of Los Angeles deserve closer attention from their elected officials than is possible, given those ratios. Expanding the council is a step in the right direction.

Authority under the present charter is distributed among the mayor, the council and the citizen commissions appointed by the mayor. No single entity has clear responsibility for the performance of city departments; this leads frequently to confusion and finger-pointing.

The new charter makes government more accountable by clarifying lines of responsibility and giving those in charge the tools they need to do the job. It reduces the ability of the council to interfere with commission actions, and it increases both the power of the mayor to choose general managers and of general managers to choose senior staff. It also allows the mayor temporarily to shift personnel and resources among departments.

These changes would make government better organized, more proficient and flexible, and mean there’d be no excuse if services weren’t delivered.

Those who claim that the new charter concentrates too much power in the mayor’s office, or somehow invites corruption, are ignoring some basic facts. To balance the mayor’s prerogative, the new charter retains the council’s ability to block the firing of general managers, to veto decisions by commissions, and to over-ride mayoral vetoes with a two-thirds majority. It assures the basic checks and balances that keep government honest.

There can’t be true accountability without expert, independent oversight of the bureaucracy. The new charter mandates that the controller conduct performance audits of all departments to detect waste, inefficiency or malfeasance. It also bolsters oversight of the police department by strengthening the role of the inspector general, something I fought hard to achieve during the drafting process.

In the past, the inspector general reported to the Police Commission’s executive director, thereby limiting the position’s independence. Under the new charter, the inspector general reports directly to the commission and is empowered to launch investigations without prior approval. The commission would be able to stop those investigations by a majority vote if it thought they were inappropriate or unnecessary.

Good government requires many ingredients, including leadership, consensus and adequate resources. The charter is just one of those ingredients, but a vital one, because it establishes the ground rules. City government and the services it delivers are far from perfect. Some people think the answer is to break Los Angeles into pieces. I believe, along with Mayor Richard Riordan and many others, that the answer is to improve the way government works by refining the principles that organize it.