When proponents announced their intention to convert Clayton Valley High to a charter school by 2012-13, befuddled looks sprang up at the convergence of Concord and Clayton like dandelions in the spring.
Charter schools have been part of California since 1992 -- there are 913 in the state -- but for many people they remain as mysterious as Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
First, they are not private. Nor do they charge tuition. What sets them apart from other public schools are teaching techniques, curriculum choices, campus culture, parental involvement and decision-making.
That last item is especially important.
Here's a primer, straight from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools:
"Charter schools are independent public schools allowed freedom to be more innovative, while being held accountable for improved student achievement. They foster a partnership between parents, teachers and students."
Sometimes they focus on special-needs students. Sometimes they offer online classes. Sometimes they concentrate on a specific field of study such as theater or science.
None of those is the reason for Clayton Valley's push, which is backed by 80 percent of its teachers. Clayton Valley simply wants to be freed from the clutches of the Mt. Diablo school district.
It's not hard to understand why.
Every time a computer requires repair, the roof needs to be tarred or a teaching vacancy must be filled, Clayton Valley is at the mercy of the district, which has 56 schools. Every request elicits the same response: Take a number and wait your turn.
"Clayton Valley used to be a pretty decent school, but it's never been a great school," said teacher Pat Middendorf, a charter proponent. "It could never become a great school as long as it was tied to such a big institution like the school district."
As a charter school, funded directly by the state, it would be accountable for its own budget, maintenance, personnel, curriculum, calendar, dress code and behavioral standards, all of which the district currently dictates.
"We would be our own school board," Middendorf said. "Our board would consist of two teachers, a classified staff member, two parents, two members at large, a retired teacher and an administrator. Right there, you've got ownership."
The incessant drumbeat of school board budget cuts -- programs discontinued, schools closed, employees laid off and teachers furloughed -- helped fuel this movement. Many Southern California schools, notably high-performing Granada Hills High, have shown chartering to be an escape from business as usual, which lately has been gloomy.
"Things kept getting worse and worse as far as financials at the school," Middendorf said.
"The more we looked into what was happening at these schools down south, they were going in the opposite direction of us. Their kids' API (Academic Performance Index) scores were going up, more kids were graduating, their campuses were full of energy."
Putting the word "charter" before a school's name does not guarantee success, but 2009 studies by Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Boston students) and the RAND Corporation (Chicago) showed charter students outperforming their peers at other public schools.
Among the advantages Clayton Valley proponents cite are unconventional teaching methods and programs tailored to student needs, with teachers held accountable to measurable standards.
"We would have a staff that answered to each other, to parents and to our board," Middendorf said, noting that when a teacher leaves, "you get to hire someone you want, not someone the district hires and you have to take."
Because charter schools are autonomous, they can attract better teachers with more generous benefits and higher compensation. "There is so much more money you free up with not having to pay the school district to oversee you," Middendorf said.
That's the rub. The school board, which will be asked to approve the plan, has not gushed over this idea, at least partly because its funding is determined by total attendance at district schools.
It was telling that when school board President Gary Eberhart was asked about the proposed conversion, he told Times reporter Theresa Harrington he was concerned it could hurt the district financially.
You can see the board's plight.
It might be asked to put education ahead of money.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.