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Mojave Desert parents wage legal fight against local district over school reform
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Parents at a Mojave Desert school said Thursday they're going to court to force the school district to accept their petition seeking a drastic overhaul of their children's low-performing school under California's pioneering "parent trigger" law.

The move comes after the Adelanto Elementary School District board of education voted 5-0 after a three-hour debate late Wednesday night to reject the petition from the Desert Trails Parents Union for the second time in as many months.

The board again found the petition did not have sufficient valid signatures to meet the required 50 percent threshold, falling short by two signatures.

The district dismissed signatures of parents whose children who had left Desert Trails Elementary School since January, parents who rescinded their signatures in writing and by phone, parents who were not legal guardians or who had no comparison signature on file at the school.

Parents and their supporters said they disputed a number of those invalidations, especially after they found evidence of forgery on six signature withdrawal forms after the petition was turned in the first time in January. That evidence has been turned over to the San Bernardino County District Attorney.

Parent union organizer Doreen Diaz said she was outraged that the district continued to count about 64 rescissions after a random sampling revealed fraud. The district only discounted the six where proof appeared conclusive.

"I don't understand their logic," she said. "We're not going to give up until our children get the education they deserve."

District Assistant Superintendent Ross Swearingen said the district adhered to the law. "We played by the regulations that were presented to us," he said, adding that a legal challenge by the parents union was expected.

Under the 2010 law, if more than half the parents at a low performing school sign a petition requesting far-reaching reforms such as conversion to a charter school or even closing a school, the district is obligated to comply.

But the law is proving tricky to enforce as school districts and teachers unions have balked at the parent petitions. "Defenders of the status quo do not cede power easily," said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, the nonprofit spearheading the parent trigger movement.

In the first case in Compton, the petition ended up in court where parents lost on a technicality. A court battle now also looms in Adelanto, located about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the second time the law has been used.

"We tried to avoid litigation," said lawyer Mark Holscher at a press conference at the Los Angeles law office of Kirkland & Ellis, which is representing the parents free of charge. "But the district has done everything to invalidate this. We're going to pursue this as far as it needs to be pursued."

In the meantime, the district is implementing its own reform plan at the school, where less than half the students rank as proficient in reading and math.

The Program Improvement Plan, which will lengthen the school day by 30 minutes among other reforms, will be rolled out in September, Swearingen said.

Administrators are currently gathering teacher and parent input. If teachers do not agree to the reforms, they will be transferred.

"We feel we're on the right path," Swearingen said. "It'll be a good reform model."

But Diaz said the school has been classified as failing for the last six years.

"What makes us think they're going to do it now?" she said. "I can't just sit here and hope they're going to do it."