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‘Disneyland of Schools’ Charter Proposal Raises Serious Red Flags, Outside Expert Says



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The petition for a K-8 charter school that would be linked to Fresno Chaffee Zoo and proposed by former NFL player Robert Golden has numerous flaws and should be denied by the Fresno Unified School Board, according to an analysis by In The Public Interest, a research and policy nonprofit.

The Golden Charter Academy charter petition, which is up for review by the School Board at its Wednesday night meeting, still contains numerous red flags even though the application has been revised since it was presented to trustees at the Jan. 13 board meeting, said Clare Crawford, a California-based senior policy adviser who prepared the analysis.

And those red flags, which include Golden’s lack of experience running a charter school, questionable enrollment goals, errors and irregularities in budget documents, illegal facilities arrangements, and an inappropriate lease of a parochial school as the school’s first home, “are all signs that the school is not prepared to be open,” Crawford told GV Wire℠ on Tuesday.

If trustees grant the charter petition, Golden Charter plans to open next August with students in kindergarten through third grade.

Fresno Unified staff had recommended in a Dec. 29 staff report that the board grant a five-year charter for the school. According to Wednesday’s agenda, Superintendent Bob Nelson will make his recommendation on the charter petition at the meeting. The board’s discussion on the petition is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

A staff report on Wednesday’s agenda responds to questions raised by trustees and the nonprofit analysis, such as whether the proposed budget initially omitted funding for a certificated principal starting in the first year of operation.

Charter Petition Still Needs Work

Portions of the proposal, which was revised after questions arose at the Jan. 13 meeting, still appear to violate state conflict-of-interest law and disregard a 2019 state law that tightens reviews of charter school petitions, Crawford said.

It also appears, she said, that Fresno Unified staff helped rewrite the Golden Charter petition, in addition reviewing and recommending whether to approve it.

In The Public Interest had provided an initial analysis prior to the Jan. 13 board meeting that found the charter school application did not meet requirements set out in the Charter Schools Act, including having a sound educational program.

Golden Charter plans to offer an environmental curriculum, and students would learn through place-based education and “universal design for learning,” an educational framework that personalizes education for each child.

Golden, a graduate of Edison High School, said his goal is for Golden Charter Academy to be the “Disneyland of schools,” a place where students will have fun while they learn and where they will want to be.

The original analysis by In The Public Interest questioned the absence of a certificated principal until the fourth year of operation according to the budget, “substantial” financial concerns that included no funds for custodial staff or relocation from a leased site to the permanent school site, undisclosed local revenues that will be used to support the school’s start-up, and optimistic enrollment projections.

The petition also failed to include the required number of signatures from “meaningfully” interested parents or teachers and raised concerns about the governance structure and admission policies and procedures.

‘Self-Dealing’ Illegal Under California Law

Particularly troubling, Crawford said, is the relationship between the for-profit corporation that Golden established, with his wife and preschool son as co-directors, to support Golden Charter’s start-up and finance construction of a new school near Fresno Chaffee Zoo for lease to the charter school.

Golden, who also is chief executive officer of the school’s nonprofit corporation, could gain financially from the linked relationship, which under state law would be illegal “self-dealing,” she said.

Golden’s mother-in-law is Keshia Thomas, who was Fresno Unified’s board president when the charter petition was submitted to the district and who is vice chair of Golden Charter’s board of directors. Thomas maintains that she does not have a conflict of interest because she has recused herself from all Fresno Unified trustee votes on the school and is not present for staff presentations and board discussions about it.

According to Golden Academy’s petition, start-up costs for the school would come from the for-profit corporation, which also would be a conflict of interest and self-dealing, Crawford said.

But a Jan. 28 Fresno Unified staff report found no conflict of interest in the potential lease arrangement between Golden’s for-profit corporation and the nonprofit school.

“The District’s fiscal department has indicated that it will certainly review any future lease relationship between GCA and its CEO and/or an entity controlled by the CEO,” the staff report says.

Diocese Sets Lease Terms

In The Public Interest also identified problems with the proposed lease of a former parochial school to house Golden Charter until its permanent school is built. The lease agreement is “wholly inappropriate” because the lease language limits curriculum and education to teachings and beliefs held by the Roman Catholic Church, which forbids abortion, artificial contraception, and homosexuality.

“This provision raises so many questions and concerns about not just the curriculum at the school, but potential culture, climate, and potential for outright discrimination at the school” if LGBTQ students and families felt unwelcome or unaccepted, the nonprofit analysis said.

Crawford said she also believes that charter officials have over-estimated enrollment projections, starting with 198 students in grades kindergarten through 3 in the first year and then adding grade levels up to grade 8 over the first five years.

Other elementary charters in Fresno, including Aspen Meadow and Bethune-Cookman, have struggled to hit their enrollment goals or seen declining enrollment, she said.

Schools depend on reliable enrollment projections when budgeting for teachers, staff, and other costs, and the state payment for each student would drop if enrollments come in lower than projected, which would put the school at risk, Crawford said.

2020 State Law Raised Bar on Charters

In The Public Interest, a national nonprofit research and policy organization that studies public goods and services, does not review all charter school petitions but does focus on larger school districts such as Fresno Unified, Crawford said.

The nonprofit intensified its attention on charter petitions after Assembly Bill 1505 became law in July 2020 and contains provisions that require chartering districts to consider the impact of new charters on the entire community.

For example, if a school were to enroll a disproportionately small number of English learners or students with disabilities, the district where those schools remain could wind up with higher per-student costs, she said.

However, Fresno Unified staffers indicated in their responses to trustees that a more comprehensive community impact study for Golden Charter is not mandatory, Crawford said.

As a result of AB 1505, the state’s two-largest school districts, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified, produced new board policies for evaluating the community impact of new charter schools, Crawford said. San Diego’s board is scheduled to take a vote on its new implementation plan at Tuesday night’s meeting, she said.

Nonprofit’s Follow-up Analysis

Nancy Price is a multimedia journalist for GV Wire. A longtime reporter and editor who has worked for newspapers in California, Florida, Alaska, Illinois and Kansas, Nancy joined GV Wire in July 2019. She previously worked as an assistant metro editor for 13 years at The Fresno Bee. Nancy earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Her hobbies include singing with the Fresno Master Chorale and volunteering with Fresno Filmworks. You can reach Nancy at 559-492-4087 or Send an Email