Santa Ana Charter School Principal's Recent Leave of Absence Leaves Parents Concerned

Concerned parents of students at a Santa Ana charter school received few answers about the principal's recent leave of absence when they met with school officials for two hours Monday afternoon.

Kitty Fortner was placed on administrative leave from Edward B. Cole, Sr. Academy about three weeks ago.


Parents said they were given no explanation from Rev. Lee DeLeon, whose church, Templo Calvario, founded the K-5 school in 2003.

In response, the parents held two meetings to voice their concerns over Fortner's absence, the safety of their children and how to get her back to the school if her absence was not related to the safety of their children. They also held two protests at Templo Calvario at Fifth and Fairview street.
Monday's meeting between some members of the board and about 200 parents and students — held outside at the school's lunch tables — was raucous at times, as board Chairman Rafael Orozco, alternating between Spanish and English with a translator standing next to him, assured the parents that the school would remain open, while trying to answer repeated questions about why Fortner was placed on leave.
“Ms. Fortner will not be dispelling rumors today because we could be here all night,” Orozco said. “What we're trying to do is simply put forth the truth as clearly as possible and as efficiently as possible so that we can then move forward as a unit.”
Fortner, who has returned to her job, then told those gathered that the school was not closing in two weeks, adding that it would be at its current location for another year and is looking for a new site. She didn't offer an explanation for her absence.
“I'm happy to be back and I missed you guys too,” Fortner said. 
Orozco, who talked often about the need to raise money for the school and its possible relocation, said he hoped Fortner's brief speech cleared up a lot of the questions. 
Apparently, it didn't. 
Speaking through the translator, the first public comment came from a mother who asked, “Why was Ms. Fortner absent for so long? And I would like to know the answer for that.”
When Orozco said the school was not closing, he was shouted down by the parents, who repeated calls for an explanation for Fortner's absence. Orozco said he didn't want to be evasive.
“There are certain personnel matters that have to remain between the board and Ms.Fortner…” Orozco said. 
Hence more said the school would stay open.
At one point, a man shouted a reference to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is embroiled in controversy over recent arrests of teachers that face charges of sexual abuse.
Many of the parents praised Fortner for her work at the school. Still, several continued to ask why she was placed on administrative leave, and told the board members that they were slack in informing them about the goings-on at the school. 
DeLeon eventually took over for Orozco, speaking mostly in Spanish as the translator interpreted in English. He reiterated the point that he could not talk about Fortner's absence, because it was a personnel matter. He also addressed the reference to L.A. Unified, saying Fortner's absence had nothing to do with breaking the law.
“That was a crime and we're not talking about that here,” DeLeon said. “Let's be clear.”
He apologized for not speaking about Fortner's leave of absence sooner, saying he needed to take time to look into the issues that led to the action. DeLeon also apologized to the parents if they felt disrespected in the process.
Fortner spoke again later in the meeting.
“I want us to end the year well,” she said. “And at the end of the year, we'll see what happens.” 
Louis Medina, whose son is in the fourth grade, said after the meeting that parents were nervous about Fortner's absence because of the recent news out of L.A. Unifed, but didn't want to take the issue to the Santa Ana Unified School District, out of fear that the school might be shut down. 
Medina, said some have speculated that Fortner and the board disagree over the vision for the school, adding that he understood why school officials couldn't discuss a personnel matter. The parent meetings and protests were a way to put pressure on the board to meet with parents, he said.
“We wanted to get the attention of the board,” Medina said. 
Many of the parents want a new board of directors, which has grown from 89 students to around 385, and serves predominately non-English speaking, low income, and Latino families. 
The school received authorization from Santa Ana Unified, with its charter renewed in 2008. The charter will be up for renewal in 2013.

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