Who is Really Backing Ross Valley Charter?

If you want to know the truth, follow the money.

Despite the privately managed, taxpayer funded Ross Valley Charter’s claims that it is “the creation of local public school teachers and public school parents,” some of their high powered maneuvers and litigation begs the question - who is really behind Ross Valley Charter and what do they hope to gain from this? If you want to know the truth, follow the money (click here).

Through various Public Records Act requests (click here to read them) submitted by community members who wished to gain a better understanding of the charter school’s resources and motivation, it has become clear that the Prop 39 charter school is not just a group of local citizens seeking to form a school. What we now know is that two charter school leaders have connections to wealthy special interests, which are very interested in seeing this charter open its doors in our Ross Valley. The following heavy hitters are funding and fueling their local effort: The California Charter Schools Association (CCSA); their favored law firm, Young, Minney and Corr; and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation. Holland and Knight, a high-powered lobbying and legal firm from Florida has provided pro bono work to the charter.

Why should we be concerned about these deep-pocketed backers of the Prop 39 charter school? If the current charter school leaders succeed, these special interest groups will have taken root in our small community and Marin County, and we might never be free of them. With the opening of the charter, the groundwork will have been successfully laid for the opening of more charters within the Ross Valley, potentially further eroding our community, weakening our public school district and removing local governance and control. Given the militant tone and approach of the charter’s backer, CCSA (Click here to read about their recent conference entitled “COMBAT WARFARE: LEGISLATIVE THREATS TO CHARTER SCHOOLS”), we need to prepare for this eventuality and STAND together.

The CCSA is funded by billionaires such as Charles and Helen Schwab, the Waltons (WalMart), Eli Broad and Reed Hastings, among others (click here and then click on each billionaire’s name to see their donations to CCSA, and here to read about these “power brokers”). These donors fund charters and pro-charter school board candidates across California and the country, in order to break and take our public schools while turning them into profit making ventures. They have even helped to fund a recent lawsuit seeking to gut the teachers’ union (click here to read the final outcome of that lawsuit). Because this is so-called “dark money,” it is difficult to illuminate all they fund, but a simple google search is telling.

Kristi Kimball, a local resident and member of the Ross Valley Charter School Board is also on the CCSA board, although her bio on the charter board website does not disclose this connection. Though apparently never an educator herself, Ms. Kimball has overseen the distribution of millions of dollars of charter school funding through her work for billionaire foundations such as the Hewlett Foundation and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation. Click here to see the list of organizations her current employer, the Helen and Charles Schwab Foundation supports, including the CCSA.

The Prop 39 Charter School was represented by the charter industry law firm Young Minney and Corr in the recent lawsuit against our public schools (read the Marin IJ article here). But how could this local group of parents and teachers afford such expensive legal services?

A recent Public Records Act request helped illuminate how the charter has been able to fund such expensive legal actions. In their December 23, 2016 emailed response, Sharon Sagar, Charter School Board President wrote, “We want you to know that All YMC work on Prop 39 was pro bono, paid by CCSA, so we do not have any records for that work.” In other words, the Prop 39 Charter School’s legal assault on our district is being funded by CCSA which pays the costs of its legal services in order to maintain the fiction that the charter school is a local grassroots group. Further, the CCSA wrote a blog entitled ”Ross Valley School District’s Efforts to Thwart Families’ Right to Education,” about the suit, but it has been subsequently removed. This pro bono work is on top of the $40,000 loan the charter accepted from CCSA to cover the costs of litigating against our district around enrollment issues. Click here to read the letter from our Superintendent, which explains how the CCSA, Ross Valley Charter and Young Minney and Corr have a “tripartite agreement.”  Click here to read our blog about the loan.

Andrea Sumits’ involvement in the charter and in the MAP program has been extensive, yet her official role remains unclear. She served as the leader (“Facilitator”) of the MAP board, and then went on to serve as a member of the charter school’s board. Her spouse is the co-lead petitioner, and as local residents know, her comments appear all over social media. Additionally, Ms. Sumits was the named plaintiff (with another parent, on behalf of the charter) in the aforementioned lawsuit against our public school district, which has since been dismissed.

Perhaps more interestingly, Florida based law firm Holland and Knight employs Ms. Sumits, and has provided $80,000 in pro bono work to the charter. It is unclear whether Ms. Sumits is the attorney of record for the Prop 39 Charter School, but according to invoices from Holland and Knight obtained under a Public Records Act request (click here to read them), Ms. Sumits billed for 62 hours of work at a rate of $620 per hour as “Consulting Counsel.” Holland and Knight is a massive legal operation, employing over 1,000 attorneys across the nation. According to The Center for Responsive Politics, Holland and Knight was paid $14.5 million dollars as a result of their extensive lobbying work.

Rather than a “grassroots” effort we might better refer to the charter school as another “astroturf” group fronting for powerful corporate interests with its sights set on taking and breaking our children’s public school and transforming it into yet another private corporate venture.

As we take stock of the recent actions of Donald Trump and his appointment of anti-public school billionaire Betsy DeVos to Education Secretary, who are seeking to remake the Department of Education into a “school choice” promoting machine, it stands to reason that our public schools are under attack. We can expect greater pressure from the federal government and deep pocketed corporate groups such as CCSA to dismantle our public schools and replace them with more publicly funded and privately managed charters. The fight we face in Ross Valley to protect our schools is the fight happening all over the country to prevent the destruction of public education in America. With the end of public education, so goes our democracy.

We believe in true public education. Stand with us!