Questions about the finances of an Oakland charter school and staunch opposition from education and minority groups may have derailed the confirmations of two State Board of Education members, according to interviews and public documents.
Neither of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's board appointees – Jorge Lopez, executive director of the Oakland Charter Academy, and Rae Belisle, CEO of EdVoice, an education advocacy firm – will get approved to serve another term, despite working on the state board since last March.
Rae Belisle and Jorge Lopez
Lopez resigned from the board on Feb. 12, citing a need to attend to family matters. The move was puzzling because two days earlier, Lopez had turned over new economic disclosure documents to the board – an action that was only necessary if he intended to stay on the job.
Meanwhile, a Feb. 18 confirmation hearing for Belisle was canceled and is likely not to be rescheduled, a Senate Rules Committee staffer said. Belisle's seat on the board ends on March 11.
In an interview with California Watch, Belisle said Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, told her that she wouldn't get a confirmation hearing because he felt she was too close to charter schools, was too uncompromising overall and didn't work hard enough to build consensus.
Weeks prior to making his decision, Steinberg had received numerous letters and phone calls opposing Belisle. The opposition came from some of the most influential educational and ethnic groups in the state. Several minority groups said Belisle's legal advice to the education board during the late 1990s to early 2000s, stripped non-English speaking students of culturally sensitive textbooks and other classroom tools.
The California Federation of Teachers, California School Board Association and Association of Calfornia School Administrators also questioned Belisle's objectivity. They accused her of playing a key role in orchestrating a state board vote in March 2009 granting a charter to a school that local district officials said wouldn't adequately serve low-income, disabled or non-English speaking children.
The weight of all of these concerns and others culminated in 15 pages of questions Senate staffers asked Belisle to respond to. For the Association of California School Administrators, the protest against Belisle was the first time in its 39-year history that the organization had ever taken an active stance against a state board appointee. In a letter to members of the Senate, ACSA President Chuck Weis and Executive Director Bob Wells stated:
After carefully considering Ms. Belisle’s background, her perspective and approach to K-12 policy, and ACSA’s priority that the State Board has greater balance and more in-depth knowledge of the K-12 system, we came to consensus that Ms. Belisle is not the right candidate for this position.
Belisle insists that she doesn't favor charters – only good ones – and pointed to a record of refusing charter school applications when she worked in Sacramento County. She said her critics sought to block her confirmation to gain revenge over past policy battles. She also charged many of them with losing sight of helping children, especially poor ones, while hiding what she believed was their true goal: defeating charters that compete with them over funding and other resources.
"I understood that some of the groups would fight against me," Belisle said. "My interest is not their interest. I have only one interest: poor kids."
Lopez has received wide acclaim for the consistent high test scores at the Oakland Charter Academy, which consists of a high school and a middle school. But he has faced criticism regarding some of his methods in dealing with children at his schools.
And, Belisle said, Lopez had grown concerned with questions he received from the Senate over his economic disclosure form. The questions, Belisle said, stemmed from an error Lopez told her he made in filling out his forms. Although Lopez thought he had addressed the concerns, the questions persisted, rising to the level of "silliness," Belisle said.
The scrutiny caused Lopez to worry that remaining on the board would put his school in political cross hairs, she said. "It was like it had become a witch hunt," Belisle said.
Lopez has not been accused of doing anything illegal or improper. Under current law, charter school administrators don't have to say whether they have any financial ties to their schools. But Lopez was required to disclose his income and assets upon accepting the state board job last March.
Those economic documents, along with Secretary of State business filings and other charter school records, show an interlocking series of business arrangements involving Lopez, his schools and a close associate, Ben Chavis of Oakland.
In 2007, for example, both Lopez's school, Oakland Charter High, and Chavis' school, American Indian Public Charter School II, were approved by the Oakland school district to operate at 3800 Mountain Blvd.
But neither went to Mountain Boulevard. Instead, both schools moved to an office building at 171 12th St., which was recently purchased for $7.4 million by Lumbee Properties LLC, a company founded and managed by Chavis. Shortly thereafter, Lopez started a property management firm, called Sun Management Group.
By 2009, Lopez would report personally collecting between $10,000 to $100,000 in rent annually for holding a 13-year lease on the 171 12th St. property. It's unclear why Lopez reported collecting rent on property owned by Chavis. Sun Management received another $10,000 to $100,000 from American Indian Public Charter School II, Chavis' school located at the 171 12th St. property.
Senator Steinberg's office declined to comment about any questions raised with Belisle or Lopez, citing confidentiality laws.
Mike Nance, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger, declined to respond to specific comments made by Belisle. Nance also declined to say whether the governor's office had asked Lopez to step aside. "I think Mr. Lopez's letter speaks for itself," Nance said.
Lopez did not respond to California Watch requests for comment. Heidi Cuevas, an administrator at the Oakland Charter Academy, said that Lopez was currently "on leave" and was unavailable. Nance did say the governor is looking for a qualified person to replace Lopez on the Board of Education but would not comment on possible candidates. The governor's office still supports Belisle and wants her to be confirmed.
Belisle said a bout with breast cancer is forcing her to scale back on her responsibilities. She stepped down as CEO of EdVoice on March 1 but still plans to help the organization in some limited capacity. Belisle insists she will continue to fight to improve education, even if it wasn't on the the state board. She said her only hope was that whoever replaced her on the board was knowledgeable and savvy enough to make a difference.
"It doesn't have to be me on the board," Belisle said. "But it has to be someone who knows the system well enough so they can't be snookered."