Parents at Esplanade Elementary – a school that is predominantly made up of Latino students from low income families in Orange – are worried elected officials will allow a neighboring charter school to expand and lease space on their campus and push them out.
Administrators with the Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA) – the charter school – say they are recognized as a California distinguished school that’s in high demand, but struggle to find space for their students and need to expand.
On Thursday, school district officials are expected to meet with negotiators for the Orange County Classical Academy behind closed doors at 5:30 p.m. during the Orange Unified School Board meeting to discuss expansion into the Esplanade school site through a lease.
The charter school is requesting a 10-year lease starting in August 2024 that would carve out exclusive spaces for Orange County Classical Academy and shared spaces on the campus as well as maintenance requirements and allow the academy to sublease to “any affiliate” without the district’s permission.
If signed by the Orange Unified School Board, the charter schools will get six classrooms next year and eventually 24 in 2027.
An old version of the proposal explicitly states the classrooms will be newly built portables on a vacant asphalt lot at the charter school’s expense, but it’s not specifically spelled out in the current proposal.
To view OCCA’s Oct. 31 lease proposal, click here.
Esplanade parents, residents and local activists plan to speak out against the proposed expansion and try to stop it from happening.
Rosa Barera, a mother of two students at Esplanade, said in an interview last week that the space they have is perfect for the roughly 300 students at the elementary school and if OCCA needs to expand they should find another spot.
“The kids would be really affected if their space is reduced. We have a lot of students and most of them are Latino,” she said in Spanish. “What if after they decide they need more and more space – where will our students go? We live here.”
Mike Davis, OCCA’s Director of School Development, said in a Monday email that enrollment is declining at Esplanade while increasing at the Orange County Classical Academy and they are not trying to drastically impact the school.
“Our proposal is designed so that we can occupy part of Esplanade Elementary campus while minimally affecting the operations of the existing school and helping Esplanade itself minimize its own operational costs by offering additional revenue,” Davis wrote.
“We are willing to pay for and install portables in cases where existing classrooms are an issue.”
Expansion Efforts Amid Recall & Enrollment Decline
Thursday’s district meeting comes as non-charter school enrollment in OC has been declining for years and charter school enrollment in the county continues to increase, according to state data.
Since 2014, Esplanade school has seen its enrollment numbers drop from roughly 420 students to just under 300 this year, according to state data.
The potential charter school expansion comes amid a recall effort against School Board President Rick Ledesma and Trustee Madison Miner for the abrupt firing of Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen over this past winter break – a move that drew concerns about violations of the state’s open meeting laws.
Some Esplanade parents raised concerns at a community meeting last week that Miner’s children attend the Orange County Classical Academy and question if she will recuse herself from any votes on the matter.
Miner did not respond to a voicemail and text message request for comment Monday.
Jeff Barke, who chairs OCCA’s board of directors, donated $1,000 to Miner’s campaign in 2022, according to county’s campaign finance documents.
Barke directed questions regarding OCCA to the School’s headmaster Monday.
The state’s Levine Act requires school board members to recuse themself from a vote that impacts donors who have contributed to their campaign in the last 12 months.
Barke’s donation to Miner was in October 2022.
Expansion Raises Concerns
The Orange County Classical Academy has been looking at creating a high school using spaces at another school to accommodate students for a while – contemplating campuses in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District as well.
In February, OCCA tried to lease space at Esplanade, but Orange Unified officials later said the charter school rescinded the proposal, according to the Orange County Register.
When rumors surfaced this year that Esplanade would be the site for the proposed expansion, parents spoke out at public meetings against it.
Their pushback came less than a year after Orange Unified School District officials entered an agreement to pay OCCA $200,000 over the course of four years instead of letting the charter school use their campus facilities as required by a state law called Prop. 39.
“In their letter of intent to lease, OCCA states that they want this agreement to become part of the alternative arrangement in lieu of providing Prop 39 facilities currently in place,” said Hana Brake, a spokeswoman for Orange Unified, in a Tuesday email.
Davis, OCCA’s Director of School Development, said the district has been looking to “monetize excess space” and the proposed lease will not impact the agreement because the charter school is not offering Orange Unified the proposal under the district’s state-mandated obligation.
“Rather, it is offering this lease as an opportunity that serves the benefit of OUSD, its constituents, including those in district students that benefit from the education OCCA provides,” he wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, Esplanade parents are organizing again to take a stand against the expansion.
Last week, a group of about 50 students, parents, organizers and school staff members gathered at El Modena Family Resource Center on how to best keep parts of their campus from being leased out.
Clara Ramos, an Esplanade mother, said in an interview at the resource center last week that students are sad because they’re worried about losing a piece of their school – which is at the center of their community.
“They want to make our school smaller and that’s not fair. Our school has been here for years. We have never had this problem before,” Ramos said in Spanish.
“They should respect our space.”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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