Merced County rejects Winton charter high school proposal

An embattled effort to create a charter high school in Winton, led by a man with a complicated background in education, will head to the state level in a last-ditch attempt to open the new school after its petition was rejected Tuesday by the Merced County Office of Education.

Board trustees denied the petition on a 5-0 vote through a resolution that criticizes the school’s academic plan, special education services and “unreasonable and inconsistent budget assumptions.” The county’s staff reported spending more than 100 hours analyzing the petition before making a recommendation to the board to deny the petition.

A Sun-Star investigation found that Juan Martinez, the founding member of the Winton Educational Foundation, the organization behind the charter movement, has repeatedly attempted to start charter schools throughout the state. Martinez also had his education credential revoked after a criminal investigation in 2009 in which he was not convicted.

Martinez and other charter supporters spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, pleading with board members to consider the students the charter would serve. Martinez said he has contractors ready for construction of the school and promised grant funding pending charter authorization.

“We can guarantee that this school will open its doors,” Martinez said.

But board members questioned Martinez about funding and statistics that show Winton students at Atwater High School performing well.

“We’re looking at the report that was given to us by the professionals,” said board Chairman Dennis Hanks. “We’re looking at whether your petition meets the specifics of the educational code. That’s it. That’s all we’re doing.”

Charter supporters believe a high school in Winton, the county’s largest unincorporated community, would increase community pride, reduce crime and spur economic development. Supporters also have voiced concerns about Winton students being underserved by attending Atwater High School, citing a lack of transportation and the number of students who drop out of school once getting to the high school level.

“Nobody can negate there’s a need in the community for a high school in Winton,” Martinez has said in the past. “The high school population here is not enjoying a high school experience.”

School officials say charter effort is poorly planned

Merced Union High School also turned down a petition for a Winton charter high school twice, citing reasons similar to MCOE’s. The high school district also says Atwater High is doing its job in serving Winton students by providing transportation and ensuring Winton students have an equal opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports and clubs.

The Winton Charter High School, as proposed, would provide a special curriculum to help freshmen transition into high school life as well as put an emphasis on students whose first language is not English. The school would essentially attempt to replicate Academia Avance, a charter school in Los Angeles that boasts a 100 percent acceptance rate to four-year universities, supporters have said.

Winton School District Superintendent Randall Heller said he believes Winton would benefit from a high school, but said the charter route is not the best method.

“A comprehensive high school would be much more efficient, similar to Atwater High,,” Heller said in a telephone interview. “I’m not opposed to a charter high school, I just think a traditional high school is needed more than a charter.”

Heller said the Winton district’s forecast does not include adding a high school. The district operates four schools that serve about 1,800 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Heller noted that Winton students perform well at Atwater High, graduating at a better rate than other students, data from Atwater High show.

Atwater High School serves nearly 1,900 students.

Lead petitioner has complicated history in education

Martinez has a long history in education, first as a traditional teacher and counselor, then in consultant work for charter schools after his credential was revoked.

In 2009, Martinez was arrested at Delhi High School on suspicion of lewd and lascivious acts on a child. Police reports obtained by the Sun-Star show the allegations were made by one of Martinez’s relatives, who was 13 at the time.

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office filed charges against Martinez, ordered him to stand trial, and then dropped the case, records show.

“We didn’t have enough evidence to go forward with the trial,” said Rob Carroll, chief deputy district attorney, who was assigned the case at the time. “Even though the judge ordered him to stand trial and there was enough probable cause to arrest him, the standard is to have proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Throughout the case, Martinez maintained his innocence and said he was falsely accused. In a recent interview with the Sun-Star, Martinez said he would never do the things he was accused of doing.

“Everybody who knows me, knows I’ve never done anything like that,” he said.

Although Martinez was not convicted, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing revoked his license to teach in 2012. Martinez told the Sun-Star his credential was eliminated as a result of the same investigation that led to his arrest.

He said he fought to save his credential, but his appeal was denied, he said, because of the “type of accusation.”

CTC records show Martinez’s credential was revoked for “misconduct,” but CTC officials have declined to elaborate. He has not been re-issued a credential.

Charter petitioners show support for Martinez

Winton Educational Foundation board members say they are fully aware of the allegations, and say Martinez’s knowledge about starting charter schools is unmatched.

“I have all the confidence in the world in him, otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” said Sean McDaniel, vice president of the Winton Educational Foundation and president of the Winton Cowboys Football League.

“When we talk about what we’re doing, he knows what’s going on,” McDaniel said. “He explains himself. He knows things (the districts) didn’t even know.”

McDaniel said the former allegations against Martinez are irrelevant in the effort to establish a charter school in Winton.

“I don’t think one thing has anything to do with the other,” he said.

Martinez said he became involved with charter schools around 2002, first working with California Charter Academy, which went belly up around 2004, forcing thousands of students statewide to seek an education elsewhere. Martinez at that time worked with California Charter Academy Winton, which worked mostly with adult students.

From there, Martinez said he worked with Imagine Schools, mostly in other states, working to build the relationship between the for-profit company and the community the school would serve. Martinez also worked with Imagine in California, where he said the charter proposals were turned down because of the company’s for-profit status.

Despite his past, Martinez said, the Winton community has confidence in him and feels comfortable with him.

“I’ve proven my integrity,” he said.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477