What's going on at San Diego Global Vision Academies?

Founder abruptly departs, salaried teachers substituting elsewhere...

Heavy cloud over 3430 School Street
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With the sudden departure of its founder Dena Harris — who took her four children with her — parents of students at the San Diego Global Vision Academies in Normal Heights say they are worried about what is going on at the school.

They're also upset that Harris left and say they weren't told about it. The parents question the make-up of the board of trustees, which has been short one member since June.

At least a half dozen children have left the school — with about 350 students in elementary and middle school classes — over Harris's departure. Parents say that many other families have put their names on other schools' waiting lists and will remove their children from Global Vision as soon as they are accepted at other schools.

"I hate that Dena [Harris] left because I felt she understood what my son needs," said Tammy Begis, a mother of four. "At this point, I'm concerned that we have three boardmembers who shouldn't be on the board — and one of the boardmembers has taken her son out of the school."

Harris, who is now working at another charter school, the Winston School in Del Mar, did not respond to phone and email messages. At a board meeting Tuesday night, Harris was mentioned only briefly as a name that needed to be removed from school banking and billing accounts. Her husband Ken Harris was at the meeting but did not comment on the matter. Another parent, who wanted to be identified only by her first name, said she was concerned about the board as well.

One boardmember and the school's education provost are also director and co-director of the San Diego Area Writing Project, and several parents mentioned that teachers are often out of their classrooms teaching at other schools for the writing gig, she said. They collect their academy salaries and additional pay — while their absence from the classroom forces the school to hire substitute teachers, she said.

Calls and emails to those boardmembers over a period of two days did not garner any response. However, educational provost Christine Kane (pronounced kah-nay) agreed to be interviewed.

"Every decision we make is about the students," Kane said. "I'm proud of the organization I represent and how we are serving our children."

Asked why Harris left the school, Kane said she can't discuss a personnel matter. She noted that Harris is now employed at a private, non-charter school.

The charter school opened in 2010 across School Street from the John Adams Elementary School. It was profiled by Voice of San Diego the following year.

Parents have had high praise for the school since its opening. But this school year, a number of parents have complained or removed children from the school.

According to the school's reports, presented at a meeting Tuesday night, the school is well funded and financially stable. Its students outperform both San Diego and statewide public schools in math and English, school staffers report.

According to San Diego Unified School District records, the school nullified its existing charter and filed a new one with the school district in July 2015. The charter requires a board of five members: two parent members, and three community members. Community members should be one with a writing background, one with a legal or business background, and one with a science, technology, or mathematics background, according to the documents.

Only three of the boardmembers attended Tuesday night's meeting: two parents and Kim Douillard. Critics of the board say that one of the parents, Amy Wilson, has pulled her son from the school, disqualifying her from the board slot.

"There are only four members making all the decisions for the whole school," another parent wrote. "You need to recruit business owners, STEM representatives, therapists, and people with diverse backgrounds. And the writing project director, Ms. Douillard, needs to step down due to conflict of interest."

Douillard has fully disclosed her conflicts of interest on state form 700, Kane said. And Wilson, who no longer has a child in the school, is now considered to be the STEM representative, though her résumé indicates she has no formal science or tech training.

Kane said that the board has been looking for more members and has settled on a candidate who will be nominated as a parent at the next board meeting.

Former CEO Harris, who was paid $99,000 plus benefits, according to IRS records, did disclose a conflict of interest: her husband, an IT specialist, was hired by the school to do at least $29,000 worth of work in the past two years.

"We no longer do business with him," Kane said tersely. She declined to discuss why.

Susan Park, from San Diego Unified School District's charter-school office, confirmed they have been receiving phone calls about the school and that parents have come in to the office with concerns in the past two weeks.

Park said that while the office keeps individual charter schools' charters and bylaws on file, she had not reviewed them in recent weeks — though she has reviewed them in the past six months — and couldn't speak to the rules for boardmembers. Park confirmed that she is getting calls from parents about the make-up of the board.

"If they are not following their bylaws, we would contact the school," she said. "We take every parent's concern at face value. A lot of times, parents have questions that the charter school is capable of responding to but hasn't been asked.... The majority of the time, those parents' concerns can be addressed satisfactorily by the school."

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What's the math on this: 1.7 percent of the kids left? Not exactly a palace coup. The charter school industry seems to best exemplify the saying, "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low." Oh wait, I forgot...it's "about the children" isn't it and probably has nothing to do with helicopter moms or schools being run as family businesses board infighting, right?

As if any one needed yet another example of the lack of control and lack of accountability in charter schools, here comes this one. If such turbulence were occurring in a regular public school, the parents would have a school district and school board trustees to call upon for answers. But with these charters, there isn't anything like that. The final three paragraphs tell the story well. San Diego Unified, which chartered this school, is legally required to maintain oversight of all the schools it charters. Yet after admitting that she has been "getting calls" about this one, Park mentions doing nothing so far. (The bitter truth is that no district exerts the control it is supposed to have over its charter schools. Sometimes that is due to lack of resources, sometimes because it is many, many miles away from the charter schools' campuses, and usually due to disinterest and incompetence.)

In this narrative there is much made of the makeup of the board. But who puts members on that advisory board? Are they elected? If so, by whom? Now that parents have questions about the school, those board members are AWOL. So, who is in charge? Does anybody know?

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