Appeals Court Justices Skeptical Of Anaheim School District Litigation Against Palm Lane Charter School Petition

The California Court of Appeals heard oral arguments yesterday in the Anaheim Elementary School District’s litigation against a group of working class Latino parents trying to convert their grade school into a charter school.

The AESD is appealing a July 2015 Superior Court ruling by Judge Andrew Banks in favor of the parents, who took the district to court two years ago after the school board denied their Parent Trigger Law petition to convert Palm Lane Elementary School into an independent public charter school. The trial judge ruled in favor of the parents and blasted the district’s conduct of the petition verification as ““unfair, unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious”.”

The attorney representing the AESD made several, sometimes contradictory, arguments as to why the three-justice panel  should overturn the lower court ruling (the panel consisted of Justices Richard Aronson, Kathleen O’Leary and Richard Fybel). The district claimed its rejection of the Parent Trigger Law petition wasn’t really a “rejection” and that the parents had 60 days to try again. Justices Fybel and Aronson pointed out the Board denied the petition, the district stated in writing it had been rejected. Justice Aronson asked rhetorically if the district expected the parents to somehow “divine” their petition had not really been rejected rejected.

“Talk about absurd conclusions,” said Aronson.

Justice Fybel pointed out that not only did the parents believed they had enough valid signatures and that the district’s signature verification process was conducted improperly – but the trial judge agreed with them and condemned the District. So why should the parents have started over again?

The AESD’s attorney also claimed they would have happily approved the petition if only it had been compliant. This assurance came in the heels of the same attorney repeating the District’s contention that Palm Lane was not subject to the Parent Trigger Law and therefore the charter petition was DOA – which begs the question of why one believe the former assurance in light of the latter claim.

Justice Fybel did almost all the questioning on behalf of the three justice panel, skewering the arguments being advanced by the school district’s Attorney. It was clear from the substance and tenor of the questioning the justices were not impressed by the AESD’s arguments. Several legal observers present afterward expressed near certainty the panel would uphold the lower court decision in favor of the Palm Lane parents.

The Court of Appeals will return a verdict within 90 days, perhaps sooner. If, as expected, the ruling favors the Palm Lane parents, the Anaheim Elementary School District could petition for review by the California Supreme Court, which it would be under no obligation to grant. If it did agree to hear the case, the AESD would likely seek a court order staying the Appeals COurt ruling pending a high court decision – would could take a year or more.

Would the AESD appeal what is likely to be an emphatic defeat in the Court of Appeals? Would the district spend hundreds of thousands more on doomed litigation? It’s difficult to escape the conclusion the district understands how weak its legal case is but is waging a war of attrition on the parents.  Under the Parent Trigger Law, only the parents who signed the petition can participate in the selection of the charter school operator.  The longer the district can delay the actual implementation of the charter conversion, the fewer signatory parents will be around to participate.  The district’s obstinate determination to continue fighting the parents in court fits with a larger strategy of delay in order to diminish the likelihood of accomplishing the charter conversion despite the parents winning in the court system.

The Parent Trigger Law petition was submitted two years ago; a number of the parents who signed it no longer have children at Palm Lane either because they’re kids aged out or they’ve moved or some other reason. The longer the district drag this process out, the fewer original signatories will be in school do you have a voice and involvement in the selection of a truck or operate. It would surprise no one familiar with the situation if that were not part of the districts thinking and strategy.

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