Due to missteps and community pushback, the doors of YouthBuild Charter School, a school created in collaboration with Save Our Future and McCarty Memorial Christian Church on Adams Boulevard, opened and closed in what seemed like the blink of an eye. That blink, however, was long enough to change the lives of dozens of students.
Walking through the halls of McCarty’s education building, you see student projects on biology, current events and art pinned to bulletin boards. The multimedia room appears as if it is on commercial break and the basketball court echoes memories of everyday games. It is hard to imagine these once busy classrooms have been empty since August 2010, when the city’s questions about the school’s management structure and need for conditional use permits and neighborhood concerns about the student population ended in the school’s lock down.
The school was the result of a partnership between McCarty Church, Save Our Future —a nonprofit organization —and YouthBuild Charter School of California — the statewide branch of a national charter school system. The school provided alternative high school education to young adults between 16-24 years old. YouthBuild provided the state funding for teachers, computers and partial rent, while Save Our Future handled the day to day operations, recruited the students and hired the teachers. The three-phase, project-based continuation school, served youth who had been ejected from the school system and wanted a second chance at a diploma. Save Our Future also created additonal job training and placement programs through partner agencies, such as Pure Hearts R Us and Playa Vista Job Opportunities and Business Services.
The school was in an area where completing high school is tough and avoiding crime is tougher. The dropout rate at nearby Dorsey Senior High is 28.8 percent, according to the state education department’s 2009-10 data. The area is the 28th most violent community among the city’s 272 neighborhoods, according to the Los Angeles Police Department’s per capita violent crime rates.
Charlotte Austin-Jordan, chief executive officer and executive director of Save Our Future, lost two of her children to gun shootings in the vicinity. This motivated her to launch Save Our Future to counter violence and give youth, such as the people who killed her children, a second chance.
So where did the plan go awry?
Austin-Jordan blames a small group of neighbors with solid political connections. Concern about the nature of the students who would suddenly be populating their neighborhood inspired a fierce push back from a handful of neighbors. “Three people were hell-fire-bent on making us something that we’re not,” she said about herself, her husband Kenneth Jordan and the church membership.
Layne Beamer, then-interim pastor at McCarty and now senior minister at First Christian Church Whittier, said there was resistance from the first day the church presented its plans to open a school to some community members.
“When groups of people started coming in and out of a building that had been very quiet over the years, we started getting complaints and notices as if we were doing this new thing we shouldn’t be doing,” Beamer said.
A total of six complaints were filed with the city’s Building and Safety department, according to Inspector Edmond Deckert. Most complaints focused on activities conducted outside the church, such as alleged drug use and drinking. Charlotte AustinJordan claims that these complaints were never substantiated and she considered them harassment.
“We had full time security monitoring the perimeters. They never encountered illegal activities or fights from the students attending the program.”
But these types of complaints could have posed a problem for the school if Save Our Future had ever applied for a conditional use permit to open a school at McCarty Church, said Los Angeles City Planner Greg Shoop.
Shoop said for a year, he received “four different stories” from Save Our Future about its relationship with the church. The extent and nature of the school’s affiliation with the church was important because it defined whether or not they were exempt from conditional use permits, Shoop said.
Austin-Jordan said Save our Future were intrinsically connected to the church due to her personal membership at McCarty Church. She became involved with McCarty when the church called on her husband, Kenneth Jordan, to revitalize programs and write grants to generate revenue for the quiet church. Along with Jordan came his wife and Save Our Future. Soon after, the couple joined the church’s membership and Save Our Future was allowed to serve as the church’s outreach program. Then, the school was established under the authority of McCarty Church’s entire congregation, which met the church’s Disciples of Christ requirement for a majority vote from the church membership.
For exemption from the $6,000 municipal conditional use permit required by the city, the church had to directly administrate the school which according to Austin-Jordan was satisfied by her and husband Ken’s memberhip in the church. But exemption was also dependant on the source of funding. According to Building and Safety inspector Edmund Decker, any acceptance of State Funds for the school nullified any exemption from a conditional use permit. Youthbuild Charter School is a state funded organization and Save Our Future became a certified Youthbuild USA Entity as well, allowing it to apply for and accept additional State funding for the school. Although Save Our Future believed they were exempt from the conditional use permit because of a variety of reasons, in the end it came down to the funding source for the school.
Austin-Jordan claimed exemption from the pricey permit under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits the imposition of burdensome zoning law on religious institutions.
However, this point is moot, according to Michael W. Newcomb of Newcomb Law Group, because zoning follows state-mandated laws but churches still have to comply with municipal codes requiring conditional use permits. Also, RLUIPA only requires cities to give churches the same treatment they would give any average citizen, not preferential treatment, he said.
Inspector Deckert agreed that churches might have the right to use their property as they wish without being subject to conditional use permits. However, the YouthBuild component of the school was funded by state government subsidies, which revokes the church’s building code exemptions, Deckert said.
Phil Matero, chief executive officer of California Youth Charter said he heard vague conversations about Save Our Future having trouble with the city, but was shocked to receive a letter from the city saying he had to shut down. The Jordans told him they were exempt from a permit because a permit for a private school at McCarty was grandfathered in. A private school was permitted at one time, confirmed Shoop, but this permit was invalid since the 1990’s.
Ultimately, Shoop determined the nonprofit organization and the church were separate entities because the school was a rent-paying tenant, not a church-funded operation. At this point, Save Our Future was ordered to cease operations or comply by applying for a permit. Matero packed up his program and its funding and left to avoid a bad reputation from spilling into his other schools.
“By the time it got to me it was too late to do anything. I think they were notified back in October,” Matero said. “Once they got the order to do the conditional use permit process, they should’ve done it.
The conflict was new to Matero, who has never had land-use issues escalate to the point of a shutdown. As a second partner in programs at other churches, he said the host program usually takes care of municipal compliance or appeases neighbors. Matero claimed that if neighbors don’t complain his schools do not run into these issues. But Charlotte claimed that nothing they did would appease the complaining neighbors who did not want that particular student population in their community.
An application for a conditional use permit would also have subjected the school to reviews and public hearings. Complaints would have played a role in the approval or denial of a permit, Shoop said. In the end the complaints did compel investigations and the city attorney’s Neighborhood Prosecutor Program pursued a criminal case for code violations.
“If I had gone in with an application for a conditional use permit, my fear was that [the city] would’ve put in so many compliances [orders] with the building that it would’ve never been done,” Austin-Jordan said.
Her fear was fed by unofficial conversations in which Austin-Jordan and Beamer claim they heard from city representatives that Council District 10 staff members ordered a hold on processing Save Our Future permits.
“Nearly universally it was, ‘You’re going to have to get the Councilman’s office on board and then all this stuff will just disappear,’” Beamer said. He claims misinformation played a large role in the school’s shutdown and felt a proactive approach to informing citizens along with the Councilman’s office’s support would have cast a better light on the school. A letter was sent to the Council Office requesting help but was sent back, unopened with “Return to Sender” stamped on it. Beamer insisted the letter was mailed to the correct address.
It should be mentioned that Save Our Future gained substantial local political support when former U.S. Rep. Dianne Watson enthuiastically backed the school’s benefits, Austin-Jordan said.
Save Our Future’s Facebook page shows the smiles students wore on hiking trips, during group projects, while attending their prom and standing proud in their graduation, which filled McCarty Church with more than 100 proud family members and teachers. Some of the students have moved on to other schools, paying jobs, other cities, trade colleges, and more, including one who is studying at Chicago State University and another who is working at Los Angeles Urban League. Another 75 students who would have comprised the second graduating class never had a chance to walk the same stage. Instead, they were advised to enroll in the nearest Youthbuild school — several bus routes away in Watts. Austin-Jordan said only eight of them graduated after they were placed in other YouthBuild programs. The rest were forced to continue tumbling through Los Angeles’ school system and its mean streets.