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Parents allege fraud foiled school reform

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POSTED February 28, 2012 8:13 p.m.


 

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Parents who lost their initial bid to reform a low-performing school in the Mojave Desert are requesting a criminal investigation into allegedly fraudulent documents submitted to the school district that helped scuttle their petition.

Lawyers for the Desert Trails Parent Union sent letters to the district, the San Bernardino County district attorney and sheriff's department this week, days after the group's petition seeking to reform Desert Trails Elementary School was rejected by the Adelanto Elementary School District because 97 parents revoked their signatures.

"There is disturbing evidence that the revocations submitted here were secured through a campaign of fraud, harassment, intimidation and, in some cases, outright forgery," stated attorney Mark Holscher in the letter to the district sent late Monday.

Parents will ask the school board to reverse its decision at its Wednesday night meeting, Holscher said in a news conference Tuesday. If the board does not reconsider, he will request that a Superior Court judge order the board to do so.

"They made a decision based on fraud," said Holscher, of Los Angeles law firm Kirkland & Ellis, which is representing the parents free of charge.

Parents discovered two signature revocation documents that appear to be tampered with and now question whether more of the 97 revocations were also doctored, said Patrick Detemple, organizing director of Parent Revolution, a nonprofit group that is spearheading parent-led school reform.

In addition, Detemple said he found 27 other rescission documents with other improprieties, including no signature, signatures by people with no children at the school, or signed by the spouse of the original petition signer.

If those rescissions are invalidated, the petition would surpass the required 50 percent threshold.

District Assistant Superintendent Ross Swearingen said the district has agreed to invalidate the two apparently fraudulent rescissions, but that does not change the district's rejection of the petition.

"There's no wrongdoing on the district's part," he said. "That's only two of 1,400 pieces of paper that got by us."

Christopher Lee, spokesman for the San Bernardino district attorney, said prosecutors are currently reviewing the documents to decide whether an investigation is warranted.

The incident is the latest twist in the second use of California's so-called "parent trigger" law, which allows parents to force far-reaching changes at failing schools by a petition signed by half of the school's parents. Parents can choose among various options, including demanding various changes, turning the school over to a charter, or even closing it.

But the law, which has spawned similar legislation in other states, is proving difficult to implement, sparking acrimony on school campuses and legal fights.

The first parent-trigger campaign in Compton last year was defeated due to petition technical errors after a court battle with the school district and allegations of threats and harassment of parents by teachers, who stood to lose their jobs if the school was converted into a charter.

In Adelanto, which is located about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, a similar scenario looms. Teachers mounted a vigorous campaign to counter the petition to convert Desert Trails into a charter school.

The petition was signed by 70 percent of the parents at the school, where less than half of the 666 students are proficient in math and reading. However, the petition was rejected last Tuesday after the district found a variety of errors in 121 signatures and another 97 parents rescinded their signatures, slashing the percentage of parents who signed to 48.

The parents union has 60 days to gather new signatures, fix technical errors and resubmit.

In the pile of petition documents organizers received late Friday from the school district to restart their campaign, they found rescissions from two parents who had signed the documents without specifying a reason. The district said it would only accept rescissions if petitioners stated they were misled or threatened.

Organizers then found identical rescission forms for the same two parents but with boxes checked stating that petition organizers had misrepresented the facts to them.

Parent union organizers located the parents, who both signed affidavits stating they had not checked off any box on the rescission and were not aware they were rescinding their signatures, said Doreen Diaz, organizer of the Desert Trails Parent Union. Those parents could not be reached for comment.

Parents union organizers believe someone photocopied the original rescission form and checked off the box so the rescission would be counted, submitting both copies out of carelessness.

Diaz said she was not surprised because there was a lot of campaigning against the petition. "I'm disappointed," she said. "All we're trying to do is get a better education for all kids."

Other parents said they were unaware that they were revoking their signatures when they signed a second petition. Mother Rosa Bracamontes, who has a daughter in fourth grade, said she signed a petition for changes at the school, but then was asked to sign another petition to "save our school," so she signed that one as well.

Later, Bracamontes said she found out she had just revoked her first signature and teachers were behind that rescission campaign. "Parents are not being well informed," she said.

Parent Jeffery Hancock said teachers from a neighboring district, Hesperia, knocked on his door, asking him to rescind his signature, telling him he'd been deceived and should have done his homework before signing.

"I was not intimidated," he said. "But I feel sorry for those people who are easily intimidated because some of their citizenship papers might not be right."

Frank Wells, spokesman for the California Teachers Association, denied that union representatives were responsible for any kind of fraud, harassment or misinformation. "Our people would not engage in any activity like that," he said.

Teachers from Adelanto and surrounding districts did mount an informational campaign to ensure parents were informed about reform options, he added, but did not resort to any pressure tactics.

"That's absolutely false. Those are loathsome accusations," he said.

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