Jewish Journal

State budget woes slow Ventura charter school

by Jonah Lowenfeld

Posted on Apr. 5, 2011 at 6:45 pm

The chances of a new elementary charter school offering Hebrew language classes opening in Ventura County next fall diminished last week.

In a decision disappointing the school’s supporters, the Ventura County Board of Education rejected an appeal to open a new local branch of the Albert Einstein Academy for Letters, Arts and Sciences (AEA). The appeal fell in a 3-2 vote taken by the board at its March 28 meeting.

The Ventura Unified School District rejected the initial AEA Ventura petition in November 2010. The recent decision came as a surprise to the school’s backers.

“I think the district put a lot of pressure on the county to not approve us,” said Joel Simon, a local Realtor and father of three who is the lead petitioner on behalf of AEA Ventura.

The first AEA charter school, a middle and high school in Santa Clarita that offers both Hebrew and Spanish language classes, opened in August 2010. Since then, Rabbi Mark Blazer, the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita and AEA’s executive director, has been working with parents like Simon to open additional branches around the Los Angeles area, without success so far. In the past seven months, four separate school districts have rejected AEA petitions to open elementary schools, including Los Angeles Unified and two Santa Clarita school districts.

While rejections by other districts have been based in part on concerns about the Hebrew language portions of an AEA school’s curriculum and the ability of AEA schools to attract diverse student bodies, these were not the primary concerns underlying the Ventura board’s decision.

“From my perspective, I think the board members who voted against cited issues associated with the [school’s] budget and the aggressive enrollment projections,” said Roger Rice, associate superintendent in charge of student services at the Ventura County Office of Education.

The AEA Ventura petition proposed starting the school with three grades (K-2) and a student body of 225, and projected growth of one grade per year, to 525 students by its fourth year.

So far, Simon said, 100 parents have expressed interest in the school.

At least one board member brought up the uncertainty of the California state budget as a reason for voting against AEA Ventura.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s initial budget plan, which did not include any cuts to K-12 public education, depended upon voters approving a five-year extension of certain temporary tax hikes. Budget talks broke down last week because there was not sufficient bipartisan support in the state legislature to put that measure onto the ballot in June.

That opens up the possibility that California will have to balance its budget exclusively by making cuts to services, including cuts to public education.

Even in that “worst-case scenario,” Blazer believes a new charter school could succeed and points to AEA Santa Clarita school as proof. “We were able to open and thrive in the midst of a crisis,” Blazer said.

Blazer remained confident about the prospects for AEA Ventura. “We’re going to open a school in Ventura; the question is the timetable,” he said.

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