Calif. judge to school district: Count signatures on charter petition

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

COMPTON, Calif. — A Superior Court judge has ruled that the Compton Unified School District violated parents' First Amendment rights by imposing an onerous signature-verification process on a disputed parent petition for a charter school.

On March 21, Judge Anthony J. Mohr ordered administrators to count the signatures by April 1 over the objections of the district, which had argued that the school board rejected the petition over technicalities.

Mohr said the verification process that the district had demanded, including requiring a photo ID and a personal interview with administrators, violated parents' First Amendment right to petition their government.

Mohr suggested the signatures be counted by a neutral party, such as the League of Women Voters, but the district rejected that recommendation. A call seeking comment from the district was not returned in time for this story.

The decision is the latest step in what has turned into a protracted legal battle over the first use of California's landmark “parent trigger” law, which allows parents to demand a turnaround at failing schools through a petition signed by a majority of parents at the school.

A group of parents at McKinley Elementary School filed the petition in December, demanding that the school be turned over in September to charter operator Celerity Educational Group. Compton Unified has rejected all applications for charter schools.

Parents have complained that they and their children have been harassed at the school, while teachers and administrators, who stand to lose their jobs if a charter takes over, say the school is being unfairly targeted. They note state test scores have risen 70 points over the past two years.

The case is being closely watched throughout the state and nationally, where six other states are considering similar laws.

Mark Holscher, attorney for the McKinley parents, said they were pleased their voices are being heard. He said the district could verify signatures simply by calling parents. “Sadly, they haven't tried calling a single parent to do a proper verification,” he said.

A court hearing has been scheduled for April 11 on the validity of the petition, which the school board found did not meet legal standards.

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