Antioch school board members concerned about renewing Charter Academy II

Ruehlig is new Board President, Vinson Vice President

By Dave Roberts

Just a week after narrowly approving the Rocketship charter school, despite a staff recommendation to reject it, two members of the revamped Antioch Unified School District Board expressed concern Wednesday about granting another five years to the Antioch Charter Academy II school.

The charter for the school, which has been in operation for 10 years at the Antioch Fairgrounds, is set to expire July 1, 2017. It boasts superior test scores to most of the district-run schools. But it’s also been marred by a child abuse controversy that resulted in the school paying $250,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging a teacher placed duct-tape over a boy’s mouth and another immobilized and humiliated him by forcing him under a chair.

Crystal Sawyer-White, who was attending her first board meeting as a trustee, said that she didn’t even want to accept the charter school’s application for a five-year extension until she has a chance to visit it.

“I have an issue with the child abuse history,” she said. “I think the teacher’s still working there. That’s why.”

Sawyer-White was apparently referring to Marianne Dubitsky, who was allegedly involved in the chair incident. The teacher who was allegedly involved in the duct-tape incident, Michelle Mankewich, is no longer listed on the school’s website as a teacher. Dubitsky’s mother, Jeannie Dubitsky, is the school principal and a co-founder of the school.

The other board member who raised concerns about the school was Debra Vinson, who voted against the Rocketship application based on a variety of concerns that included its special education program.

“I have a lot of concerns,” Vinson said about the charter academy. “I would want there to be a capacity interview around special ed. I’ve looked at the petition. I know that it was signed years ago under certain conditions. I would want to review that. I would want to look at the details, especially around the special ed concern. I’ve visited the site, but I would like to go back again for a more comprehensive visit. There’s just a couple of different things we really need to look at.”

The only other board member comments came from President Diane Gibson-Gray, who said she doesn’t agree with the need for an interview with the charter school administrators, and from Walter Ruehlig, who asked staff to provide information at a future meeting on the AUSD board’s oversight of the charter school “just so we can see what we’ve been doing.”

Jeannie Dubitsky, in her brief remarks to the board, did not address the child abuse controversy or Vinson’s concerns about the special ed program, but did invite the board members to visit the school.

“We are very excited about this,” she said. “What happened was we allowed public students to have Montessori experience. Typically it was a private [school] endeavor. We are the first in Contra Costa County to be a charter. The first charter in the United States was a Montessori. We also offer many other programs.”

The school’s website describes the Montessori method: “The Montessori philosophy has an unwavering belief in the individual – an individual who through time, experience and support becomes a self-disciplined, independent, and self-confident learner. In Primary & Elementary (TK-3) the environment will be prepared for students to interact with specially designed materials that are hands-on which promote a concrete understanding of verbal, mathematical, and sensory skills.”

The method may be working. Slightly more than half of the school’s students are proficient in language arts compared to just one-third of students in the AUSD average. And twice as many Antioch Charter Academy II students are proficient in math than the district-wide average.

A significant contributing factor may be the demographic difference between the school and the district. The school is 41% white versus the district’s 16%, the school is 32% Hispanic or Latino versus the district’s 42%, the school is 9% African American versus the district’s 26%, and the school is 8% Asian versus the district’s 4.5%.

The board voted unanimously to accept the petition, formally beginning the 60-day process to either approve or disapprove it. A hearing on the petition has been scheduled for the board’s next meeting Jan. 25, and a vote is scheduled Feb. 8.

In other board action:

  • Several parents pleaded for the continuation of the after-school math program at Jack London Elementary, which they have been told is due to terminate. School officials did not comment on their concern, but Ruehlig asked that it be placed on a future meeting agenda.
  • Ruehlig was elected as board president for the next year and Vinson was elected as vice-president, each on a unanimous vote.
  • The board unanimously voted to refinance up to $20,752,944 in Measure C bonds in an attempt to save several hundred thousand dollars that can be used to help repair some of the district’s dilapidated schools, including Turner Elementary School’s leaking roof.
  • A budget update revealed that the district is no longer engaged in deficit spending after years of having done so, but the district’s technology system is, as one staffer put it, “on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”
  • The agenda specified that the new board members, Sawyer-White and Gary Hack, along with re-elected member Gibson-Gray, would be sworn in at the beginning of the public portion of the meeting at 7 p.m. But Gibson-Gray said they had already been sworn in – she and Hack the day prior and Sawyer-White at 6 p.m. – to allow the full board to participate in the closed session prior to the public portion of the meeting. The board also went into closed session after the public portion of the meeting.

2 Comments to “Antioch school board members concerned about renewing Charter Academy II”

  1. Jessica Kane says:

    I’m surprised that this article fails to mention that Crystal Sawyer-White’s son attended Antioch Charter Academy II for several years, a very relevant fact that shouldn’t be overlooked.

    • Publisher says:

      Ms. Kane,
      Thank you for reading the Herald and for your comment.

      We were not aware of that information. According to our reporter, Dave Roberts who attended the meeting, it wasn’t mentioned by her or anyone else that night, either.

      Furthermore, it wasn’t mentioned in the Herald article about the candidates’ forum we sponsored and in which Mrs. Sawyer-White participated. –

      Nor did she mention it in her campaign announcement press release, which was included in our first article about her. –

      So, it’s not common knowledge. Plus, it has no bearing on her vote as a school board trustee, nor does it prevent her from voting on the matter, as there is no conflict of interest.

      Finally, Mrs. Sawyer-White’s experience of having a child who attended the school probably affords her greater insight in her decision making and, as the article states, she voted with the rest of the board to allow the petition process to move forward.

      But for the next article about the school’s petition hearing and vote, we will be sure to check with Mrs. Sawyer-White to verify the information you’ve provided and include it and an interesting, related fact, if true and if it has any impact on how she will vote on the matter.

      Allen Payton, Publisher

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