By: Monique Daviss, Pastor Lee de Leon, Renée Lancaster and Mike Limón, courtesy of the OC Register
In March of this year, each one of our schools was contacted by Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) officials and informed that, for nearly two decades, SAUSD had neglected to collect enough money from schools in the district — including charter schools — to cover the costs of providing special education services to Santa Ana students. We were each given invoices that, collectively, total $20 million and that failure to agree to pay would result in the district withholding funds from us, starting on May 15.
To say this was shocking would be a significant understatement. This action by SAUSD is unprecedented, improper and violates state law as well as the clear language of our charters that have been approved time and time again by the district.
To understand why this action by the district is so egregious requires some explanation of how special education funding works in California.
All charter schools authorized by SAUSD elected to participate in a Special Education Local Plan Area with SAUSD. As part of this agreement, a SELPA receives all the state and federal special education funds from each participating charter school as well as for all the schools run by the district; these funds are used to support the costs of educating students with disabilities.
SAUSD now claims they have incurred costs for serving special educations students beyond the funds they receive directly from the state and federal governments as well as the funds they receive from us and claim that our schools did not pay them enough.
However, not once in the nearly two decades our schools have been open has SAUSD ever claimed we owe them anything above the amount they already withhold. To our knowledge, no audit of SAUSD financial statements from the past 20 years has ever backed up this sudden shortfall claim.
Not once has this issue ever been raised in the dozen charter renewal processes our schools have collectively performed. Every year, we submit budgets, audits and other financial documents to the district. They have never claimed that our contributions to serve special education students were not sufficient. Even now, SAUSD has provided no documentation to back up their claims for more funds.
It would be as if you had been paying your mortgage for 15 years on your house, only to have the bank claim that they made a mistake in calculating your payment and demand a million dollars, without providing proof of the error. No reasonable person would think this fair or appropriate.
The loss of funds of this magnitude would be an enormous challenge for our schools moving forward, presenting a nearly impossible scenario in which our schools would be forced to sacrifice the people and programs that have been vital to making them some of the most sought after educational options in the region.
Providing excellent services to our students with special needs is a core principle of the work we do. This work is challenging, often complicated and incredibly rewarding. It takes honesty, transparency and good-faith partnerships to be effective. For the last several years, our schools have – by and large — enjoyed that kind of relationship with the district and it has helped to ensure that our students have many great educational options from which to choose.
The district’s attempt to lay blame for this suddenly-discovered special education funding shortfall at the feet of our schools threatens that relationship and threatens the educational options that thousands of Santa Ana families currently have to meet the needs of their children.
Because SAUSD decided to issue multi-million dollar invoices without any meaningful justification or opportunity for discussion, we have been forced to go to court to protect our basic rights to a fair and open process. Already, Santa Ana’s fifth charter school, Orange County School for the Arts, has won two important court decisions prohibiting SAUSD from taking any action to withhold funds as their similar case proceeds.
We think this issue deserves to be considered openly and publicly. We are calling on the SAUSD Board of Directors to add this item to the public agenda at their upcoming June 11 meeting so that the board may have the opportunity to hear from those directly affected by this action and consider a different process that doesn’t pit public schools against one another in court.
We hope they will take this opportunity to pull away from the brink of a lengthy and expensive legal process in favor of the collaborative process we have enjoyed previously.
Monique Daviss is the Executive Director of El Sol Science and Arts Academy of Santa Ana. Pastor Lee de Leon is the CEO of Edward B. Cole, Sr. Academy. Renée Lancaster is the CEO of NOVA Academy Early College High School. Mike Limón is the Executive Director of Orange County Educational Arts Academy.