Charter school founded by former LAUSD Trustee seeks countywide status

Photo courtesy of OCCA The picture caption is: Students at Orange County Classical Academy, a Charter school seeking to expand countywide. Photo Courtesy of the OCCA Board

Orange County Classical Academy (OCCA), a TK-6 charter school in the Orange Unified School District that opened in 2020 is seeking to expand across Orange County.

On Dec. 1, OCCA staff presented a petition to the Orange County Board of Education (OCBE) seeking to become a Countywide Benefit Charter. If granted, OCCA would be able to open sites in multiple school districts across Orange County.

Out of 37 charter schools in O.C., four have countywide status, according to Ian Hanigan, spokesperson for the Orange County Department of Education. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that can operate independently in terms of some curriculum but must meet California’s education standards and are subject to local oversight.

“We’ve got over 1,000 people on our waiting list,” the school’s co-founder and current Chair of its Board of Directors, Jeff Barke, M.D. said in a phone interview last month. The Rossmoor resident also served on the Los Alamitos Unified School District Board of Education for twelve years before losing a re-election race in 2018.

His spouse, Mari Barke, is the current President of the OCBE.

As expected, at the OCBE’s Dec. 1 meeting, President Barke recused herself from all discussions and votes regarding OCCA’s petition.

In a statement released before the meeting she wrote:

“Although neither I nor my husband, who is a member of the Board of Directors for the school, have any personal financial interest or potential for personal financial gain from the granting of the petition, I will recuse myself from all discussion, comments, and votes concerning the School.  I do this to avoid any appearance of impropriety, and because of the common law prohibition against conflicts of interest which may be non-financial matters of personal interest.”

It’s not the first time the couple has been connected over an issue on a public meeting agenda. Dr. Barke is currently President of the Rossmoor Community Services District. In June, as President he backed bringing Orange County Board of Education-sponsored public forums on Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory to Rossmoor. OCBE ended up pulling its request to use a Rossmoor facility for the forums amid pushback from some residents over safety concerns and an estimated $96,000 in security costs.

Mrs. Barke is also a staff member at the California Policy Center, a think tank that is pro-charter school. Mark Bucher, who is on the Center’s Board of Directors, co-founded Orange County Classical Academy with Dr. Barke.

OCCA Presents at Meeting

At the Dec. 1 meeting the school’s Headmaster Semi Park, its legal counsel, a student and others spoke on OCCA’s behalf.

“Our mission and vision is very unique in that we believe in developing students in mind and character through a classical content rich Liberal Arts and Sciences curriculum that emphasizes the principles of scholarship, moral character and civic virtue,” Park said.

OCCA bills itself as the county’s only tuition-free “Classical Education charter school.” It’s the only school in California that utilizes a charter school program from Hillsdale College, which describes itself as a “small, Christian, classical liberal arts college” in Michigan. OCCA states on its website and in its petition that it is nonsectarian.

According to its petition, starting in fourth grade, OCCA students are taught Latin and the program uses six pillars of character education including responsibility, respect, courage, courtesy, honesty and citizenship.

During public comment at the Dec. 1 OCBE meeting, many parents praised OCCA’s focus. One mother of three children said she couldn’t afford private school and OCCA was her next best option because it aligned with her family’s values.

“The last I checked we do live in a free country. It’s the United States of America and as parent, we should have the ability to choose the best school possible without having to worry about the money,” she said.

Park outlined OCCA’s 1,000 person wait/interest list in her presentation, which includes more than 500 students that live outside of Orange Unified, according to its petition.

OCCA’s current campus in Orange accommodates 450 students but the academy plans to add grades 7th and 8th next year and go all the way through 12th grade in the coming years with a population of roughly 2,000 students, according to its petition.

One speaker urging denial of OCCA’s petition at the Dec. 1 meeting was Sukhi Ahluwalia, counsel for Placentia-Yorba Linda School District and Huntington Beach City School District, two districts OCCA has identified as possible locations for expansion.

“The fact that there are interested families does not meet the high and specific standards for a countywide charter. Rather, it argues in favor of OCCA seeking to expand its current school, add or submit one or more charter petitions to other school districts in order to expand operation,” Ahluwalia said.

The other two districts being looked at are Huntington Beach Union High School District and Capistrano Unified.

Dr. Barke said the districts were selected based in part on the wait/interest list but added, “That’s not to say we won’t look elsewhere.”

The petition states, OCCA “as a single countywide Orange County benefit charter, would be able to leverage its existing resources, capital, and reputation to expand into new locations within Orange County.”

“It’s a very difficult, arduous, time-consuming and very expensive process to put a petition before a school board,” Dr. Barke said. He recalled challenges when OCCA petitioned the Orange Unified School District Board of Education.

The process culminated in a meeting in late 2019 that lasted until after 1:30a.m. with comments from supporters and opponents. Trustees ended up voting 4-3 to approve the charter school.“We won’t know the total cost for another few months, when the process is done,” OCCA Board Treasurer Jean Judge wrote in an email message last month.

Judge said the school chose this route believing the benefits will outweigh the costs in the long run. “In other words, the opportunity costs of not submitting the petition was too high,” she said.

Path to Countywide Status

According to its website, the Orange County Board of Education “may only approve a countywide charter school if it finds, in addition to other requirements, that the educational services provided by the charter school will serve a pupil population that will benefit from those services and cannot be served as well by a charter school operating in only one school district in the county.”

Right now, four charter schools have this status: Samueli Academy, Orange County Workforce Innovation High, Scholarship Prep Orange County and Explore Academy.

Explore Academy received the status in October. The OCBE approved its petition by a vote of 4-1, going against the recommendation from the OCDE to deny the petition. First District trustee Rebecca “Beckie” Gomez was the lone vote against approval.

The Orange County Department of Education’s Charter Unit will now review OCCA’s petition. On January 18, 2022, the OCDE is due to issue its official recommendation on whether to approve or deny the petition. The OCBE will hold a public hearing and vote on Feb. 2, 2022. At least three trustees must vote in favor for approval.

In an email after the Dec. 1 presentation, Dr. Barke appeared optimistic. “We feel very good – confident that our charter petition will be approved on our merits.”

Appointee Could Impact Decision

With Mrs. Barke’s recusal, one thing that could impact the fate of OCCA’s petition is who ends up being appointed to fill the current vacancy on the OCBE.

Last month, 4th District trustee Tim Shaw resigned from his post representing Buena Park, Fullerton, Placentia and parts of Anaheim. The OCBE is currently accepting applications from people seeking appointment to serve out Shaw’s term through June 2022. The application deadline was extended to Dec. 17 after only one person who doesn’t live in the district submitted an application, according to OCDE spokesperson Ian Hanigan.

Shaw’s replacement is due to be appointed Dec. 21.

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