Charter wins Prop 39 ruling (updated)

Court says Los Altos erred in allotting space
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Long-running hostility between a high-performing charter school and a wealthy, high-achieving district in the Bay Area has led to a state Court of Appeal ruling that further clarifies the right of charters to comparable district facilities.

In a unanimous, unambiguous decision overturning a District Court ruling, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Appellate District ruled that the Los Altos School District failed to offer Bullis Charter School adequate space because it did a faulty comparison with what was available in its other schools. ** Update: The Los Alto School District trustees voted 4-0 on Monday to appeal the decision to the State Supreme Court, according to the Los Altos Patch (see below).

The Bullis case was the latest of about a half-dozen Court of Appeal interpretations of Proposition 39, mostly favoring charter schools. Prop 39 is the complex law voters approved in 2000 that requires a school district to “make available, to each charter school … facilities sufficient for the charter school to accommodate all of the charter school‘s in-district students in conditions reasonably equivalent to those in which the students would be accommodated if they were attending other public schools of the district.”

The case centered on the basis for determining what constitutes “reasonably equivalent.” Prop 39 doesn’t require that each and every space offered to charters be identical to other district schools, the court said. But it does require that districts  acknowledge these differences in making a full and  accurate comparison considering the range of a school’s space needs. As Eric Premack, executive director of the Charter Schools Development Center in Sacramento, observed, “Size matters but it isn’t everything,” particularly if a charter is offered qualitatively better facilities.

However, districts must make a good faith effort with no playing cute to deny the charter its due.

Miscalculations and mistakes

Los Altos District didn’t do that. It made “mistakes” in reporting the outdoor lot sizes of five comparison schools by more than 50 percent on average. It undercalculated  the needs of Bullis’ library; it failed to pro-rate the outdoor space Bullis shared with Eagan Junior High, since Bullis was restricted to using a soccer field 40 percent of the time. It counted as district space provided to Bullis a multipurpose room that Bullis raised the money to build. It chose the smallest room size in the district, instead of an average room size, in the comparison.

In a footnote to the decision, the judges said “there is certainly evidence in the record” from which a finding could be made that the district acted in bad faith, though the court “declined to do so here.” (Prop 39 does not mete out penalties for bad faith, though courts could award lawyers’ fees at some point, and in the case of Los Altos, they would be huge.)

The court outlined general criteria that districts must follow in responding to a facilities request under Prop 39. Few districts have the quality facilities found in Los Altos, so it’s all relative. Still, districts must must:

  • Select appropriate district-run schools to use as a comparison group with the charter school,
  • Factor in three categories of space (teaching, specialized teaching, and non-teaching space such as libraries and day care facilities provided at other schools) in the comparison schools; and
  • Consider the site size of the comparison schools.

Jed Wallace, CEO of the California Charter Schools Assn., says he is hopeful that the Bullis decision would lead to a common-sense application of Prop 39. “There is an emerging consensus (among courts) that districts have not been doing what they should have in terms of standards of reasonable equivalency.”

Still fewer than half of the state’s 900-plus charter schools have sought free facilities under Prop 39. The Association is suing Los Angeles Unified, which has cited a shortage of space in not responding to some charters’ requests. And there remain inventive ways that districts can circumvent Prop 39,  so the Bullis ruling is not likely to end lawsuits, maybe not even at Bullis.

Founded seven years ago by Los Altos Hills parents when the district closed Bullis Elementary School, Bullis got its charter, on appeal, from the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which renewed it last month. It’s now a K-8 charter serving about 10 percent of students in Los Altos, and has a wait list.

Ken Moore, chairman of the Bullis board, said that the school is cramped and lacks a functioning library and eighth grade science lab. Students have been kicked out of using the Egan gym.

Moore is optimistic that, with the oversight of Santa Clara County District Court, where the case will return, Los Altos will provide adequate facilities next year. By redrawing school boundaries, the district could  open up more space at Egan and solve the problem, he said.

But while there may be a space shortage at Bullis, there hasn’t been a shortage of money for lawyers in Los Altos. No one’s betting this lawsuit will be the last.

** “The decision not only impairs school districts from exercising their judgment, balance interests, and make decisions in the best interests of all students, it provides a windfall to charter schools, affording them greater space than afforded students attending district schools,” according to the district announcement. Board President Bill Cooper added in the statement,  “As much as this court might wish to cast this process as strictly formulaic, in practice, the allocation of resources under the standard of “reasonably equivalent” does not neatly fit into a by-the-numbers approach.”

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18 Comments

  1. There isn’t a shortage of money in Los Altos at all, but still, that passing comment hints at the vast amount of resources that are siphoned off from our children’s educational needs into the legal and administrative morass created by the charter school sector.

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  2. Quite correct.  My wife, a principal at an LAUSD elementary school, was forced by administrators who feared a lawsuit to give up critical classroom space to a charter whose CEO’s are in jail for embezzlement.  That same charter tried to relieve our local high school, where I taught and my children attended, of the only real social spaces the school has.  Ivy Academia, the scoundrels in question, backed off when three hundred parents shrieked bloody murder, my wife and I among them (she testified that Ivy tried to get her to agree not to send them any special ed. kids).  This charter, by the way, has been re-certified by the LA school board and I haven’t heard that Mr. Wallace is troubled by them.

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  3. “By redrawing school boundaries, the district could  open up more space at Egan and solve the problem, he said.”
    Because, of course, changing school boundaries every year at the whim of the charter school will have no impact on the other LASD school communities or the experience of those students.
    LASD is a small district, with little spare capacity and no spare land, and Bullis is going to have to negotiate in good faith to get a long-term settlement which works for everyone, rather than just demanding that they be accommodated without regard to the district’s needs.

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  4. I agree that BCS and LASD boards have to truly come together to find a long-term solution now that the Appellate court has ruled.   But I have to object to what you said about changing school boundaries every year at the whim of the charter school will have no impact on the other LASD school communities or the experience of those students.“.    I’ve lived in the area since 2000 –  LASD redrew the boundary in 2003 when it closed down Bullis Purrisima Elementary, and redrew again for the school year 2008 when it re-opened that same school as Gardner Bullis.   There has never been a redrawing due to “whim” of the charter school. I agree that no matter what, there will be some real pain inflicted to the community, the pain that could have been avoided if LASD didn’t re-open Gardner Bullis in 2008.  I believe they re-opened that school in the Hills in part due to the threat of Los Altos Hills forming its own school district., which would have meant loss of many millions of property tax dollars coming from the Hills.

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  5. People should stop thinking about schools and districts and start thinking about students and families. Obviously with this particular case, there were enough parents who felt that their students were not being served by the traditional district in order to make the choice to attend the charter school. While the intent of the charter law was not to have affluent families to create charters (Bullis reports 0% Free/Reduced Lunch students), it is a law to provide families with choice, particularly in under-performing districts. Charter schools are not a panacea but they do provide real choices for parents who do not normally possess such choices. Prop 39 ensures adequate facilities for all public school students and this lawsuit goes a long way to help redress this issue.

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  6. A “real choice” to segregate your children in an exclusive enclave is not something that taxpayers’ money should fund. We have private schools for that.

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  7. Taxpayers already do this as affluent tax payers select where they want to live and live in segregated and exclusive enclaves already. And we have magnet schools like Lowell.

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  8. Yes, that’s true (and Los Altos and LAH aren’t hotspots of economic or ethnic diversity anyway). But Lowell has a reason for being a magnet school — it’s aimed specifically at high academic achievers and admits based on academic performance. That’s an entirely different concept from a public school that appears to exist entirely to cloister a very high-wealth demographic.

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  9. “A “real choice” to segregate your children in an exclusive enclave is not something that taxpayers’ money should fund. We have private schools for that.”
    We also have suburban public schools for that.  (It’s really amazing, the lack of self-awareness and reality-based-thinking it takes for a public school supporter to condemn a charter school for allegedly doing something that traditional public schools do 10,000 times as often.)

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  10. When suburban schools isolate privileged children with other privileged children, it’s something that occurs because of the housing patterns in the community. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a byproduct of a greater issue, beyond the control of those who run the school.
     
    When that particular type of charter school does it (best exemplified by Reed Hastings’ Pacific Collegiate in Santa Cruz), that’s its purpose. And we shouldn’t be spending our tax dollars on that.

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  11. I’ll believe that you’re sincere if you also agree to stop spending tax dollars on most public schools.

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  12. My point about the boundary issue was that, under Prop 39, BCS is only obligated to submit its enrollment estimate in November for the following school year. In theory, they could decide to grow every year until there is no more demand for places. LASD obviously cannot redraw attendance boundaries every year, so BCS is going to have to provide longer-term estimates and commitments.
    The problem with the court decision, applied to the real world, is that while classrooms and offices can be balanced with a reasonable effort by adding more modules, acreage cannot be created out of thin air.

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  13. It is interestinghow something so seemingly rational and fair: equal facilities can be result in such unfairnes and allow one class of citizens to be more equal than others.
     
    On its face a mandate for equal facilities for charter students seems fair, all students should get the same we presume.
     
    But in its application it allows a charter school to demand space and land for students who have made a volitional decision to attend a charter school at the expense and educational loss of students who are simply exercising their state given right to attend their assigned local public school.
     
    The fact that Judges Grover, Rushing and Duffy ruled as they did in favor of the Charter School marks a continued change in our country from one of equality for all to privilege for the rich and scraps for the poor.
     
    Being blessed to send my own children to one of the $35,000 per year private schools that dot Silicon Valley I dont personally feel this scourge and will be able tio maintain their place in the privileged class, but I see this ruling as one more exmaple of the death of US egalitarian society as we become more and more third world like.
     
     

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  14. Just the facts:
    * BCS has 5% special ed. students, LASD has 10%. BCS has 1% English Language Learners, LASD has 10%. Difference in API scores, less than 3%.
    * Out of 680 applicants, only 365 are from LASD.
    So essentially these people are burdening a small city with very little income other than property tax with their educational needs. Why can’t they take their funding from their under-performing school districts and bring it in to LASD? Most of them are bigger cities: Mountain View, San Jose, Sunnyvale, Cupertino.

    Prop 39 is flawed and it’s allowing the well off to skim the system at the expense of LASD special needs kids

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Trackbacks

  1. Proposition 39 | Sejani
  2. A Charter School Issue « gonzoecon.com
  3. BCS vs LASD | Los Altos Village Whiner blogLos Altos Village Whiner blog

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