VALLEJO – The Vallejo school district and Griffin Technology Academies (GTA) have two months to work out a “last chance agreement” to keep the charter network open.
The Vallejo school board approved a tolling agreement — or a negotiated deadline agreement — last Wednesday, which pauses the charter revocation process for the next 60 days. GTA’s board of directors approved the agreement Thursday.
The Vallejo City Unified School District Board of Education voted on April 28 to send a notice of violations to each of the four charter schools GTA operates alleging the charter network mismanaged its finances, allowed mold to flourish inside school facilities, and violated the state’s open meeting law.
Issuing the notices was the first step in stripping the network of its charter status.
In its response dated June 6, GTA said it had addressed several concerns the school district raised, while also working to resolve other concerns. GTA proposed the agreement as a way to show the network’s commitment to fixing those issues.
District Superintendent William Spalding said on Wednesday that, by law, once the charter has formally responded to the notice of violations, there is a 60-day window for the district to make a decision to continue with the revocation process. Spalding said that window was originally set to close in early August.
“We basically push pause,” Spalding said. “We allow 60 days to work on what could be a last chance agreement, which is an agreement that the charter would enter into that had some very strong stipulations and expectations but might allow them to continue operating so long as they meet certain conditions.”
He said the tolling agreement doesn’t mean the district waives the right to issue notice of revocation. Spalding further said that should that “last chance agreement” fail to materialize, the district will have 20 days to issue a notice of revocation.
“In this case, there are still some outstanding issues, some concerns, but there also has been progress in areas,” Spalding said. “So, it was the determination that what we should do at this point is enter into a tolling agreement, which pauses the clock.”
During his April 28 presentation, Spalding accused GTA of failing to address the presence of toxic mold at its school facilities, while charter officials also allowed classes to be held inside the facilities for three full weeks after the mold was discovered.
Responding to those allegations, GTA said the board was unaware of the severity of the disrepair prior to the district noticing it. Calling it a “perfect storm,” GTA pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic and “poor school leadership” as reasons for the extensive mold growth.
Trustee John Fox said he believed GTA has made progress with remedying issues with its physical buildings.
Fox also pointed to the hiring of Nick Driver as GTA’s permanent superintendent and turnover at the board level as good signs that the charter network was taking the notice of violations seriously.
“I really appreciate that MIT/Griffin have thanked us for bringing them all these issues to fix them and bring them to compliance,” Fox said. “That’s a powerful statement.”
Driver asked the school board to approve the agreement, stressing that it “is an important way forward.”
“We wanted to sit down with Superintendent Spalding and his staff to be able to negotiate an agreement that would be of interest to both parties,” Driver said.
Vice President Christy Gardner praised passage of the tolling agreement.
“This is really a win-win for both sides because chances are this school is going to be here for a while,” she said.
Originally known as Mare Island Technology Academy, GTA became the first to operate as a charter school within the boundaries of the Vallejo City Unified School District in 1999. The network has since expanded and currently has about 1,300 enrolled students.
School board approves new contracts with legal teams
The Vallejo City Unified School District School Board also voted 3-1 to approve a new $90,000 contract with Lozano Smith Attorneys at Law, LLP to provide general counsel for the 2022-23 school year. Spalding said the agenda incorrectly stated that the firm would be used to provide an organizational study of the district’s Special Education Services Department.
The lone “no” vote came from Fox, who has previously expressed concern about the ethics of the school board hiring Lozano Smith to serve as the board’s attorney as the board discussed a new contract for Spalding during a June meeting.
Fox asked why the district has more than one legal firm, which, Spalding said, was a normal practice.
“It has been my experience in every district I worked, that there are typically multiple law firms, a lot of times what you are doing is trying to select the very best in different areas,” Spalding said.
Spalding said the district uses P. Addison Covert for bond issues along with Fagen Friedman and Fulfrost for “the bulk of our legal work,” including human resources and charter school issues.
The board voted 4-0 earlier in the meeting to approve a new $425,000 contract with Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost for general legal services.
Fox previously stated that it was a conflict of interest for one of the firm’s attorney’s, Roman Muñoz, to work on the new contract while representing the board after it was revealed the pair had a previous working relationship while Spalding was employed at another district.
“We use Lozano Smith for more general counsel, direct support to the board, and there are times that we also need to use them when there is a personnel termination case,” Spalding added.
Trustee Tony Ubalde was absent from the meeting.
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