By Troy Anderson
ADELANTO, Calif., March 28 (Reuters) - A group of activist parents in this impoverished community were thwarted again in their bid to become the first in the nation to seize control of a public school under a controversial "parent trigger" law designed to shake up chronically failing schools.
Capping an emotional four-hour meeting, the board of the Adelanto School District in California's Mojave Desert voted 5-0 on Wednesday night to reject a petition invoking a 2010 state law that permits parents to effectively seize control of low-performing schools.
But supporters of the petition vowed to challenge the board's action in court.
The trigger effort, backed by a well-funded activist group, Parent Revolution, but opposed by the teacher's union, has been closely watched as a key battleground in an intensifying fight over the nation's $500 billion-a-year investment in public education.
The Florida legislature narrowly defeated a parent trigger bill earlier this month, after a fierce debate, and several other states, including New York, Michigan and Louisiana, may consider similar bills this year.
"The nation is watching this evening. California is watching," said former California state Senator Gloria Romero, who co-sponsored the legislation.
The outcome of Wednesday's meeting marked the second time the Adelanto board has denied a petition submitted by families seeking a takeover, finding they fell short in collecting valid signatures from parents representing at least half of the 642 students at Desert Trails Elementary.
The petition drive has been fraught with acrimony as the two sides accused each other of fraud and forgery in trying to meet the 50-percent threshold or in presenting rescission affidavits from parents who claimed they were misled into initially giving their support.
"I could care less if I don't get elected to office again, but today I stand for all of Adelanto in saying we will not be duped by anybody," school board member Jermaine Wright said in explaining her vote against the petition.
Even after a second rejection, it appeared the debate in Adelanto, a community of about 31,000 people made up predominantly of low-income minorities, was far from over.
Patrick DeTemple, the organizing director of Parent Revolution, said the group planned to challenge the board in court, insisting supporters had collected valid signatures from "a solid 70 percent of the parents."
At its core, the dispute has pitted parents ready to take drastic action to reshape management of their school against parents concerned that sweeping, untested changes promised under the "trigger" measure would worsen the situation.
"Our children are much too precious to turn them over to groups that have no track record of proven success," said Lanita Dominque, a teacher and president of the Adelanto District Teachers Association.
Petition supporters cited years of chronically poor academic performance at the school, where more than half of the students fail standardized state tests in math or reading.
Takeover advocates have called for converting Desert Trails into a charter school in the fall, allowing them to hire non-union teachers or renegotiate the union contract. They have said they would like the charter to be run by a coalition of parents, teachers and district administrators, rather than by a private charter school management company. (Additional reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Steve Gorman and Anthony Boadle)