Charter Schools Accuse San Jose Unified School District of Trying to Poach Prospective Teachers

San Jose’s largest school district has been accused of sabotaging applications to open new charter academies. Teachers who expressed an interest in working at two proposed charters say San Jose Unified School District tried to poach them and invalidate their signatures of support.

“This is the first time we’ve seen actions like this taken by a district anywhere in the state,” says Brittany Parmley, spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA). “We believe they’re trying to stall the start of the clock.”

To qualify a petition for a new charter school, its founders must prove “meaningful interest” by collecting signatures from parents of half the students that plan to enroll, or half the teachers they plan to hire. Alexandria LeeNatali—aspiring principal for one of the new schools, Perseverance Prep—opted to gather the names of teachers. But when she handed them over to San Jose Unified this past winter to verify interest, she says, officials tried to recruit the instructors for district schools.

“To be frank, I was shocked,” LeeNatali says.

In voicemail recordings she shared with San Jose Inside, the San Jose Teachers Union President Jennifer Thomas can be heard delivering what sound like pitches on behalf of the school district rather than verifying interest in working with the charter, Perseverance Prep, which was never mentioned.

In transcripts also provided by LeeNatali, SJUSD Deputy Superintendent Stephen McMahon reportedly did the same.

“We’re in the middle of our recruitment season,” Thomas says in one message, according to call transcripts provided by LeeNatali. “I saw your resume and thought I would give you a ring to talk about what it’s like to work in San Jose Unified.”

Tempers flared at a May 4 SJUSD board meeting.

Source: SJUSD

Source: SJUSD

The district wanted to postpone the hearing until the petitioners submitted enough signatures to meet the state threshold. Charter proponents accused the district of stacking the deck against them.

Matt Hammer, who makes $225,000 a year to lobby for charters as CEO of nonprofit Innovate Public Schools, picked up his cellphone and fired off a series of terse text messages to district trustee Susan Ellenberg about a motion to put off the Promise Academy hearing for another month.

“You leave people no option but to speak out when you don’t allow people to speak on this agenda item before you pull it,” Hammer wrote, according to records obtained through a formal request. “That makes people feel silenced. Why the delay?”

Ellenberg texted back from the dais: “Because we don’t have 50% interest—we evidently aren’t allowed to accept that without that number of signs.”

“SJUSD has always granted a hearing without verifying sigs, like every district in the state,” Hammer replied. “McMahon is making up new interpretation. … And you aren’t letting ppl speak at mic. That seems to be significant violation of [Brown] act.”

“This is very distracting and inappropriate,” Ellenberg wrote. “Everyone gets to speak during public comment.”

McMahon, the district’s deputy superintendent, defended the verification checks, adding that the process honors the intent of the Charter Schools Act of 1992. Although other districts may go about it in other ways, he says, the state Education Code supports the district’s requirement. “Opening a school is difficult,” McMahon says. “We are holding petitioners accountable to the process of the law. It’s not that the process is difficult, it’s what is necessary to open a school the right way.”

Policymakers who backed the Charter Schools Act decades ago envisioned the new model working alongside public schools by offering something that traditional classrooms couldn’t offer. Charters receive public funds, but run like private businesses. Similar to nonprofits, they have non-elected governing boards and the freedom to experiment with curriculum due to fewer rules and a lack of labor unions. But critics say lax regulations and profit motive have fueled an industry that strays from the original vision.

Charter schools have become a major part of the national educational framework, with nearly three million children—6 percent of all public school students nationwide—enrolled. In Santa Clara County, the number of charters has skyrocketed in the past decade to 65—about a third of them approved by the county and the rest by districts. Statewide, charters have grown from fewer than 200 schools in 1998 to more than 1,200 serving 600,000 students, thanks to some $2.5 billion in public subsidies offered with no obligation to follow policy objectives.

“The results are, in turn, scattershot and haphazard,” University of Oregon education researcher Gordon Lafer wrote in a recent report by progressive think tank In the Public Interest. “Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent each year without any meaningful strategy.”

The systemic tendency to give charter petitioners the benefit of the doubt has led to schools being opened in neighborhoods with no need for more classrooms, Lafer says. He found that 450 charters have opened in California school districts that already had enough space, an overproduction that cost taxpayers $111 million in rent, lease and mortgage payments, $135 million in bond debt and $425 million in private investments subsidized by tax breaks.

Lafer add that charters routinely fall short of their educational mandate. In California, 161 charters scored in the bottom 10th percentile of similar schools but continue to collect $44 million in lease payments, $57 million in general obligation bonds, $40 million in tax-credit investments and $85 million in conduit bond financing. The CCSA dismissed the Lafer report as one-sided, the product of a research group backed by charter-averse teacher unions. Preston Green III, a professor of educational leadership and law at the University of Connecticut, took his criticism of the burgeoning charter sector a step further, likening the industry to Enron and the subprime mortgage market.

“At first, I thought charters gave us an opportunity for innovation to level the playing field for students of color,” says Green, who has been studying and writing about charter schools for two decades. “But over time, I became very concerned that people were exploiting privatization to benefit themselves.”

The problem, he says, lies in the way states structure charter schools, which involves a byzantine network of private entities funded by public dollars. At best, charter school operators volunteer their financials and invite the public to board meetings. At their worst, the people running them get busted for fraud and self-dealing.

Magnolia Schools—a charter management organization that runs 11 campuses, including one in San Jose—made headlines for its dubious hiring practices. According to audits, the charter chain recruited teachers from Turkey and required them to shell out 40 percent of their salary to the parent organization or risk losing their visas. In January, another charter network, Celerity Educational Group, came under federal investigation after reports surfaced of the CEO using the enterprise as a personal piggy bank.

“People are right to be skeptical,” Green says.

Vera Sloan, a 34-year-old parent with two young daughters in San Jose Unified, says she supports high-performing charters schools. But she has serious concerns about the petitions being considered for Perseverance and Promise. LeeNatali has only been credentialed since 2016, which Sloan worries would make her far too inexperienced to found and run a school. She also expressed reservations about the proposed disciplinary system, which appears overly punitive.

Sloan hopes the district’s elected officials will exercise restraint and only approve charter petitions that add value. She views the upcoming decisions about Promise Academy and Perseverance Prep as a test for the newly elected members of the board.

“Charters have the flexibility to innovate in a way that most public schools cannot,” says Sloan, a community organizer and co-founder of local activist group Stand San Jose. “But we have to set a high standard and not approve each one that asks to open.”

McMahon agrees. If the SJUSD board approves a poorly managed charter school, taxpayers, parents and children are on the hook. Perseverance Prep comes up for a vote Thursday, while Promise Academy’s petition is slated for sometime in June. Click here to read the petition for Perseverance, and here for the one from Promise.

This article has been updated to reflect that the voicemail provided by Alexandria LeeNatali was from Jennifer Thomas.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

10 Comments

  1. I was a bit shocked until I read that it is SJUSD -specifically McMahon (former union president???!! Can you say from the start that should’ve been deemed a conflict of interest) and Jennifer Thomas (current president who frankly advocates more for the District) than for the teachers who pay her salary. SJUSD is so corrupt (I am a former employee) that I often just wait for that District to implode. They’re a powerhouse of money so it’s hard to expose them. People, keep requesting public records requests around all issues. Everyone slips via text or email messages. That’s the only way they’ll be brought to justice. Disgusting humans are thomas and mcmahon. Complete dog and pony show .

  2. On the issue, I fully support SJUSD and Jennifer Thomas, who works for SJTA. Because of the work I do, I’ve seen a lot of district and charter schools in San Jose. In general, SJUSD district schools are better run, show more professionalism and offer more challenging curriculum to students. (However, they could learn from the charter schools by offering more personalized family registration attention and more counseling services to students.) Though there are some excellent, grassroots-level charter schools in our area (Sunrise Middle School comes to mind), there are many that are not and thus deprive our children of a high quality education. Most have inexperienced teachers and staff who aren’t paid well and do not offer the same academic rigor as schools in the district. It’s infuriating to me that some of the companies who run these schools are investing so little in the children or school site and instead enriching investors — in addition to wasting tax payer money by starting schools where public schools exist already. If someone wants to get a sense of the priorities of SJUSD vs. charters, I challenge anyone to visit local district and charter schools and see for yourself. In general, SJUSD is head and shoulders above most area charter schools. The only things they don’t have going for them is a slick marketing team and lobbyists to send out press releases which serve as the basis for articles like this one.

  3. What’s best for students is discipline, having competent teachers, and focusing on educating students instead of a system that pays school districts for each warm seat. This is a battle over the funds available for education. In other words, it’s a fight over money, when the battle should be for improving test scores.

    The government’s.edu industry had clearly failed, and charter schools are the result, if not the remedy. This shows the situation at a glance:

    https://phaven-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/files/image_part/asset/53506/YXyHv2uMB5H7Lx-Y4klx9wfe_PI/medium_0image001.gif

    That makes one thing crystal clear: more money is not the answer.

    And the way money is spread around is ridiculous. For example, the Burbank school district has just one (1) school in it. So the public pays for the school—and a redundant school district. But just try to get the Burbank district absorbed into a neighboring district…

    IMHO, the education system in this state is beyond hope. There is no fixing it. Changes are merely cosmetic, but the basic problem of passing on and graduating unqualified students remains.

    The only solution that would work is too drastic for anyone in education to accept: getting the government out of it. But our parents and grandparents won world wars, built the Golden Gate bridge, sent men to the moon, etc, without depending on a ‘Department of Education’.

    And as we see, the more that government becomes involved with education, the worse education becomes:

    https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/wp-content/uploads/Cato-tot-cost-scores-Coulson-Sept-2012-sm.gif

    Can you do the math?

  4. 1) Anyone can go to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing website and perform a public search on an educator.
    the CTC website shows that Alexandria LeeNatali just earned her preliminary teaching credential in 2014 and cleared her credential less than one year ago, in July 2016. Which means she does not yet have an administrative credential, which is required to be an administrator in a California public school (but apparently not in a charter school in California.) It takes several years to get a preliminary administrative credential in California, and more time to ‘clear’ that credential. Parents should look at the level of experience and credentialing of both teachers and administrators.

    • Charter school administrators do not need to have a CA credential, but most charter school teachers do need a CA credential. Just because someone has a new CA credential, however, does not mean they are inexperienced. They may have experience in other states or in private schools, or they may be transferring out-of-state credentials.

      Besides, a credential does not ensure someone is a great teacher. If it did, private schools would require them. Many, many fantastic teachers have worked hard to earn credentials, but if you have been a public school students, you know that the credential doesn’t guarantee a great teacher.

  5. 2) SJUSD Susan Ellenberg should not be texting with anyone during a school board meeting! The point of having public meetings is so that the public’s business can be conducted in public – not in private via text message during the meeting! No schools trustee or any other elected official should be behaving that way during a board meeting. And Ellenberg is running for County Supervisor – is this how she would behave if elected to the County Board of Supes? I should think that Ellenberg would have received some Brown Act training which would have instructed school board members to not text during school board meetings. SJUSD’s school board needs to deal with this issue and publicly take a stand against board members texting with members of the audience during the board meeting.

  6. 3) If SJUSD is needing to hire more teachers, they ought to take a look at their HR department’s interview process and the good teachers they exclude from consideration. I and many other teachers I’ve talked to, such as at the SCCOE teacher job fair, were troubled by the questions in the SJUSD interview process which seemed to infer that there is conflict between the adults in their schools (teacher vs. teacher conflict and teacher vs. administrator conflict.) Some of the questions were substantially ‘different’ from questions asked by other districts, i.e. the questions about conflict did not reflect favorably on the district. It is not just the district that is interviewing a teacher candidate during the interview process, the candidate is simultaneously interviewing the district. If the teachers listed in the charter school petition have not applied to SJUSD through Edjoin, or handed in a resume to SJUSD at a teacher job fair to indicate their interest, then it isn’t okay to call teachers listed on a charter school’s petition to try to recruit them.

  7. Hey, Jennifer, why did you not include the salaries of the top SJUSD officials in this piece? Those salaries are all part of the public record.

    Two years ago, SJUSD had FOUR employees earning in excess of $205K in salary and benefits–and three of them were over $237,000. How much are the taxpayers in SJUSD paying Stephen McMahon to make phone calls to potential charter school teachers?

    If charter schools cannot attract enough students, they will close. The only way they succeed is by enrolling families who are not happy with their options in district schools. Provide a better education than charter schools, and families will stay in district schools.

    Instead of wasting time harassing prospective teachers that they are not meaningfully interested in hiring, perhaps Steve and Jennifer should spend their time working to ensure all SJUSD schools provide the highest quality education for all students and the charter school issue will go away. Friends who have been teachers in SJUSD describe an extremely dysfunctional environment. Maybe not at all schools, but enough problems that Steve and Jennifer should not be spending time harassing potential charter school teachers.

  8. What’s best for students is discipline, having competent teachers, and focusing on educating students instead of a system that pays school districts for each warm seat. This is a battle over the funds available for education. In other words, it’s a fight over money, when the battle should be for improving test scores.

    The government’s.edu industry had clearly failed, and charter schools are the result, if not the remedy. This shows the situation at a glance:

    https://phaven-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/files/image_part/asset/53506/YXyHv2uMB5H7Lx-Y4klx9wfe_PI/medium_0image001.gif

    That makes one thing crystal clear: more money is not the answer.

    And the way money is spread around is ridiculous. For example, the Burbank school district has just one (1) school in it. So the public pays for the school—and a redundant school district. But just try to get the Burbank district absorbed into a neighboring district…

    IMHO, the education system in this state is beyond hope. There is no fixing it. Changes are merely cosmetic, but the basic problem of passing on and graduating unqualified students remains.

    The only solution that would work is too drastic for anyone in education to accept: getting the government out of it. But our parents and grandparents won world wars, built the Golden Gate bridge, sent men to the moon, etc, without depending on a ‘Department of Education’.

    And as we see, the more that government becomes involved with education, the worse education becomes:

    https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/wp-content/uploads/Cato-tot-cost-scores-Coulson-Sept-2012-sm.gif

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