FUSD plans nonprofit group for charter school

In what may be the first of its kind in California, Fresno Unified School District plans to launch a nonprofit organization to open a charter school in west-central Fresno.

But the plan — up for a vote next month — is already coming under fire from Fresno teachers union officials, who say the new strategy is meant to bypass union hiring rules.

Fresno Unified wants to open the Morris E. Dailey International Studies Program in August at the former Dailey Elementary School near Shields and Palm avenues. The school would be a K-5 charter that would prepare students for the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate programs at Wawona Middle and Fresno High schools.

The district plans to create a nonprofit called Fresno Innovative Charter Schools Inc. to oversee the school, which is expected to house 380 students by the 2012-13 school year. The nonprofit’s five-member board would include Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson or his appointee, two members from the district’s board of trustees and two parents.

The district hopes to raise the bar for local charter schools — several have struggled or closed recently — and having an independent agency oversee the new school will help ensure its success, Hanson said.

It’s also part of Fresno Unified’s effort to be part of the national movement toward charters — innovative schools heralded by President Barack Obama as part of his “Race to the Top” education reform. Charters are publicly funded schools that have flexibility to teach in nontraditional ways.

Hanson said the charter school will allow the district to impose a longer school day and design a program that appeals to students and their families. Teachers and other staff would not be represented by unions.

“This is clearly about student futures and parental choice,” he said.

Creating a nonprofit to oversee the school puzzles John Madrid, general manager of the California Charter Schools Association regional office in Fresno.

He said the district could open a charter school without establishing a separate nonprofit, as it already does with Sunset Elementary School.

Madrid also questions whether the nonprofit would truly function independently, since the board’s majority will be Fresno Unified officials.

“Creating this independent organization and having the superintendent and others on the board … Is there a conflict of interest?” Madrid asked.

Dailey Elementary, an 85-year-old campus at Palm and Shields avenues, closed in June 2007 after the Fresno Unified school board approved boundary changes that sent its students elsewhere.

Last year, the district discussed reopening the school with an International Baccalaureate program, but didn’t unveil plans until recently. A public hearing on the plans will take place at tonight’s board of trustees meeting; a formal vote on the school is scheduled Feb. 10.

Fresno Teachers Association President Greg Gadams said there’s no need to create a district-operated private charter when the district could offer the same program as a magnet school or operate the charter the way it operates Sunset.

He called the new school “Hanson’s private charter,” saying it is more about ego than education.

Gadams said the superintendent is also trying to get around the union by separating Dailey from the district. “The teachers I have talked to are furious,” he said.

Teachers aren’t opposed to the idea of creating a charter at Dailey, and they want to be involved in the process, he said. But Hanson “believes teachers are the problem, not the curriculum, not the administrators telling them what to do,” Gadams said.

Hanson said the school’s design provides for “total flexibility to do what is best for students and families.”

The school will have a longer school day, something that would be more difficult to accomplish in schools staffed by unionized teachers, he said.

One solution that would allow union representation, Gadams said, would be for the district to seek a waiver from the FTA to lengthen the school day.

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