By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A lawsuit filed Wednesday claims last month’s Santa Rosa school board decision to close Doyle Park Elementary School and replace it with a French-American charter school was illegal and discriminates against the school’s predominantly Latino students.
The suit, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court by attorneys representing the Doyle Park Committee for Education Equity, asks for a restraining order to halt closure efforts and seeks to overturn the board’s decision.
The group claims the board acted improperly because a school board member had a conflict of interest, the board’s March 15 vote violated the Brown Act and the move violates state law governing conversion of schools to charter schools.
“The closure of Doyle Park Elementary is marred by the school board’s failure to appropriately disclose and address this blatant conflict of interest by one of its members,” said attorney Kimberly Thomas Rapp in a statement.
Rapp is executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which promotes the civil rights of immigrant communities and is part of a group of attorneys representing Doyle Park supporters.
Doyle Park’s 240 students, 73 percent of whom are Latino, would be sent to three other elementary schools in the district. Critics accuse the board of discriminating against lower-income minority students in favor of a charter school likely to cater to higher-income white students.
District officials, however, said Doyle Park had declining enrollment and test scores and that creating a charter school would bring in needed students and revenue.
The suit was not a surprise but was disappointing, said Robert Henry, the school board’s attorney. He said the lawsuit raises no new issues or facts, and he is confident the school district will prevail. He will meet with the board today in closed session to discuss the suit.
The committee is made up of Doyle Park students, parents and teachers hoping to block the closure. Two current students, Karina Guadarrama and Kaylen Garcia, and their parents are named as plaintiffs in the suit.
Opponents of the board’s action have seized on school board trustee Tad Wakefield, saying he violated conflict of interest rules when he cast the key vote to close Doyle Park.
Just prior to voting, Wakefield publicly acknowledged that he had expressed interest in having his two young children attend the French charter school and said he had been advised by the board’s attorney that he had no conflict.
The suit claims Wakefield’s “private or personal interest in enrolling his children” at the French-American school “created an impermissible conflict of interest with his duty as a member of the Board.”
Wakefield has denied he had a conflict, and Henry and an outside law firm hired by the district both concluded there was no conflict.
But Wakefield had an obligation under common law not to put his person interests in conflict with his official duties, said Cecilia Chen, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee.
The lawsuit claims Wakefield’s vote “impermissibly tainted the proceedings, rendering them legally invalid.”
The group also claims the board violated the Brown Act, claiming that at least four members of the board improperly privately discussed the issue before the vote. It names Wakefield and board president Larry Haenel as having had such a discussion. Haenel has denied he ever spoke to more than two other members of the seven-member board.
The 20-pagelawsuit also argues that the board violated state law regarding how to convert a public school to a public charter school.
When the board “directly linked” the closure of Doyle Park with the designation of the site for the French-American school, it “changed from being a new charter school to a conversion of an existing public school to a charter school.”
That triggered a set of rules that were not followed, notably the requirement for a petition to be signed by at least 50 percent of Doyle Park’s teachers, the suit claims.
“I do think that is an argument that has merit and is strong,” Chen said.
Henry disagreed. In this case Doyle Park is being closed and the start-up French-American School will take over the vacant building, which Henry said “converts the site, not the school.”
“They simply missed the mark completely on what the charter school law is about,” Henry said.
Henry said he expected a hearing on the restraining order request as early as this week.
He didn’t know what the impact of such an order would be, but said the district is putting the “finishing touches” on plans to transfer teachers and students to other schools.
The suit claims the closure and transfer to other schools would cause students to “experience a significant disruption to their daily lives, and suffer emotional and mental distress.”
Chen said many of the students and have strong ties to their teachers and fellow students and “being uprooted during a pivotal time in their lives can be extremely traumatic,” she said.