In a hearing yesterday at the Orange County Superior Court, Judge David Hoffer ruled in favor of Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA), granting a temporary restraining order to stop the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) from withholding essential monthly state funding over a controversial dispute regarding back payments for special education services. This result is in compliance with the terms of the legally binding charter agreement.
“We are very pleased with the court ruling today. Now, the legal counsel of both parties can focus on finding a solution to the original disagreement, allowing OCSA to remain focused on providing exceptional educational programming for our students, without any immediate threat of losing funds,” stated Ralph Opacic, Ed.D, founder and executive director of OCSA.
The Orange County School of the Arts (“OCSA”) filed the complaint with the Orange County Superior Court against the Santa Ana Unified School District (“SAUSD”) in order to prevent the SAUSD from withholding state funding from OCSA.
Four additional charter schools in Santa Ana: Nova Academy, El Sol Science and Arts Academy of Santa Ana, Orange County Elementary Educational Arts Academy and Edward B. Cole, Sr. Academy have also been similarly threatened by the SAUSD.
In March of this year, the SAUSD informed the schools that in their opinion, the schools, from 2002 to the present, failed to contribute an “equitable share” for district-wide special education costs (under the Special Education Local Plan Areas or “SELPA”). The SAUSD sent invoices to each school, purportedly representing their shortfalls in contributions from 2002-2019.
OCSA’s invoice was for $19,493,329! (The cumulative total invoices for the other schools combined is approximately $15 million.)
This issue has never been raised before by the SAUSD, including each year when the SAUSD reviews OCSA’s budgets and financial statements, nor each of the three times that OCSA’s charter was reauthorized. No documentation was provided and at no time in the last 19 years has the SAUSD indicated in any way that OCSA owed any amount in addition to the millions of dollars already received by the SAUSD as a result of OCSA’s participation in the SELPA.
Last month, the SAUSD alerted OCSA that they would start withholding funding to OCSA as of May 15, 2019 to offset what they think is owed (the $19,493,329). If this threat is followed through, it will cause OCSA and the other charter schools in the district significant financial distress that could impact programming to all students.
“We categorically think the SAUSD is wrong and their opinion is contrary to law and the terms of our charter agreement,” states Ralph Opacic, Ed.D., founder and executive director of OCSA. “We hope that the filing of this litigation will result in the SAUSD Board reconsidering the SAUSD staff’s position for the good of all concerned.”
“As Santa Ana’s largest charter school, we have always supported – financially, academically and emotionally, the needs of our special education students,” states Steven Wagner, OCSA’s chief operating officer. “We are proud of the contributions we have made to the SELPA over the years and have had every intention to continue doing so. However, should the SAUSD fail to reconsider their actions, we will have no choice but to leave this district’s SELPA and join another.”
OCSA has been a part of the SAUSD SELPA since it joined the district in 2000. The SAUSD receives dedicated state funding on OCSA’s behalf, which it uses to reimburse the costs of OCSA’s special education program, including personnel. The SAUSD retains any remaining funds, which can be used to support special education services for non-OCSA students in the district.
Over the past 19 years, under this agreement between the SAUSD and OCSA, SAUSD received and retained in excess of $11 million of state special education funding provided on OCSA’s behalf – above and beyond what was reimbursed to OCSA. The other charter schools are in similar situations, but at different amounts and percentages.
California’s Charter School Act declares that charter schools “are part of the Public School System” and, as such, entitled to full and fair funding “equal to the total funding that would be available to a similar school district serving a similar pupil population.” The bulk of Santa Ana’s charter school funding comes from a combination of grant ADA funding directly from the state in lieu of property tax payments.
About Orange County School of the Arts
Established in 1987, the nationally recognized Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) provides an unparalleled arts and academic education in a creative, challenging and nurturing environment to a diverse student body passionate about the arts, preparing them to reach their highest potential. As a tuition-free, donation-dependent public charter school, OCSA serves nearly 2,200 students in grades seven through 12, providing college-preparatory academics and pre-professional arts training through 15 different conservatory programs.
The U.S. Department of Education and National Endowment for the Arts have recognized OCSA as a model arts education program. OCSA has been recognized as an “Exceptional Charter School in Special Education” by the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) in 2017 and 2018. OCSA’s Counseling Program is the first 7th-12th grade program in California to be named as a nationally Recognized American School Counselor Association Model Program (RAMP).
OCSA has been named as one of California’s Gold Ribbon Schools for 2017 and is an Arts Schools Network 2017-2022 Exemplary School. OCSA is consistently named one of America’s Best High Schools by U.S. News & World Report and ranked as one of the Best Charter High Schools in California by Niche. The school is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). For additional information, visit www.ocsarts.net.