Up until the moment after the motion to approve the petition to establish Imagine Schools of Imperial County (California) was made at the meeting of the Imperial County Board of Education, no one knew how the decision would go. Not that folks hadn’t gone through this same process before. Imagine Schools had a long and checkered history in Imperial County, having a previous school shut down for academic failure and no luck attempting to reopen with the County Board in 2019.
As required by statute, the staff of the Imperial County Office of Education had published their analysis of the petition. They opined that the petition met the standard specified as necessary to be considered for approval as a countywide benefit charter school, although their analysis lacked any history of the chain in Imperial County. The folks from Imagine looked confident in the front row they occupied.
But what followed the motion to approve the petition was a surprise: Nothing. No board member stepped up to second the motion and, without the second, no vote could proceed. At a subsequent meeting, the board made official what had already been determined:
WHEREAS, during the public hearing on the Petition held on May 8, 2023, a motion was made to adopt a resolution to approve the Petition subject to the conditions listed therein, with an amendment that would grant a three-year charter term, rather than the proposed five-year charter term; however, that motion failed due to the lack of a second;
And, finally, it was resolved:
The County Board hereby denies the Petition to establish Imagine Schools Imperial County.
Imagine Schools is a national charter network with schools in several states. ITPI previously wrote a research brief which dug into some of the fiscal issues around the country. Some of the questions we raised in the brief were resolved in an audit but many of their practices are still questionable.
Imagine operated a charter school—Imagine Schools Imperial Valley (ISIV)—that was authorized by El Centro Elementary School District from 2010 until 2018, when it was denied renewal by the district. In September 2018, after California Department of Education staff recommended denial, it withdrew its appeal to the State Board of Education. It subsequently submitted a countywide charter petition to the Imperial County Board for a proposed school called Imagine Schools Imperial County (ISIC), although it was the same school as the recently shut down ISIV. The petition was denied by the County board in September 2019 and the school in Imperial Valley was shut down. Despite its shaky performance, the school had entered into an expensive long-term lease prior to losing its charter, for which it continues to have to pay rent of approximately $1.2 million annually despite having no students occupying the school since 2018. Reopening the school would solve this revenue problem for the chain.
This year, the Imperial County Office of Education received a countywide benefit charter petition from Imagine Schools Imperial County which would have allowed Imagine School to operate as an independent school system outside any existing school district. Six district school boards within the county released a joint statement protesting the return of Imagine School, saying the charter was trying to bypass the local district approval process. Imagine proposed the countywide benefit charter petition to the Imperial County Office of Education, in an apparent end run around preferred local school board approval, without explaining past failures,” the joint press release reads.
With their leadership publicly opposed to the charter, these districts mobilized. Teachers and classified employees unions organized and turned out in opposition to the charter, with constant communications among them to keep up to date and coordinate for the packed, pivotal meeting where the Board ultimately decided.
Petra Oviedo, Labor Relations Representative with the California School Employees Association, was one of the organizers who addressed the board. “The fact that you have administrators, superintendents, educators, and classified staff from all over Imperial County School District here present to show their opposition is to be noted and taken into consideration,” she told them.
ITPI submitted a letter asking that the board deny the petition and pointed out a number of issues with Imagine, including questionable financial practices, inadequate academic analysis, complete lack of community impact analysis, and inadequate analysis of meeting criteria for countywide charter. In particular, we highlighted Imagine Schools’ track record in California, which reflects significant disparities in the students they serve. With their existing charter in Riverside County, the most concerning issue is the precipitous drop in the enrollment of socioeconomically disadvantaged students. In the 2017-18 school year, 85.4% of students enrolled at Imagine Schools Riverside were socioeconomically disadvantaged. By 2021-22, the percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students had plummeted by almost 30 percentage points to 56.5%. Over that same time span, Riverside County’s percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students grew from 66.7% in 2017-18 to 69.1%. Imagine Riverside currently enrolls no homeless students.
While this time, we carried the day, we know that the attempts to privatize public education in many forms will continue. And while every charter proposal is different, the success in holding the line in Imperial Valley presents a model of how an informed and organized coalition can defeat those attempts.
Senior Policy Advisor