Bullis Appeal May Have Far-Reaching Impact in State

Late Thursday afternoon, the news rippled rapidly across Los Altos, parts of Mountain View, Los Altos Hills—and even beyond, to the legions of specialists who advise charter schools and school districts: The Sixth District Court of Appeal unexpectedly overturned a ruling that upheld the school district in a dispute with Bullis Charter School over facilities space.

Stunningly, the state appeals court had found against the Los Altos School District (LASD) in how it measured school facilities to determine what was “reasonably equivalent” to provide Bullis, in fulfillment of Proposition 39 regulations. Four other lower court cases had upheld the district.

“We’re certainly looking at all our options,” said a disappointed Bill Cooper, president of the LASD board. “But it would be premature to put a definitive stake in the ground.”

And it wasn’t just Bullis Charter School nor Los Altos School district officials who would be thinking about this turn of events over the weekend, contemplating what was next.

The published decision was clearly intended to have impact far beyond Los Altos.

“I have to read this decision over the weekend …it’s something I have to be aware of, said Ed Sklar, an attorney with Lozano Smith in Walnut Creek, who represents school districts complying with Prop. 39.

In fact, Tuesday is the deadline for charter schools across the state to submit their requests for facilities for the 2012-2013 school year to their host districts, so the court’s ruling will likely become part of the discussion of Prop. 39 requests very soon, Sklar said.

“We will be looking to this decision to see if there’s any further instruction to give to clients,” he added.

Representatives of the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA), which had submitted a 35-page friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Bullis appeal were also expecting to use the decision in its work.

“It will be very helpful in our statewide efforts,” said Julie Ashby Umansky, vice president for legal advocacy at the CCSA. “We’re really pleased by it. “

Prop. 39 was passed by voters in 2000. It provides that charter schools are offered  facilities with “conditions reasonably equivalent” to what students would receive if they were attending other public schools in the district, and that facilities must be shared with all students of the district.

Prop. 39 compliance is also the main topic that lands charter schools in court against school districts. At any given time, there might be about five or six cases involving Prop. 39 up and down the state, Umansky said.

The court, in publishing its ruling, and addressing at length the way the Los Altos School District measured facilities space and where it was found lacking, was attempting to bring guidance to the contentious topic, and in particular what “reasonable equivalence” means.

Despite the number of Prop. 39 cases that get filed, none have given guidance to “reasonable equivalence,” Umansky said. It has been a big issue with charter schools, who are seeking facilities space from the very districts with which they are competing, she said. The CCSA’s experience, she said, is that districts often show a pattern of responses that serve to undercount facilties space, spread out charter facilties all over a district, and essentially result in unfair allocation of space for students.

“I was very impressed with the clarity with which the justices covered all of the issues,” said Bullis Charter School president Ken Moore, calling the ruling “tremendous.” Moore added that it was the first time, through four lawsuits, that a court had taken the time to look at the actual calculations of space available in a district, rather than take the district’s assessment of space on face value.

There is some disagreement about the broader impact of the ruling beyond Los Altos.

“I read it expecting lots of clarity,” said Stephanie Farland, who was the senior policy consultant for the California School Boards Association for a dozen years, primarily involving charter schools. Farland now is a consultantassisting “charter school authorizers,” such as school districts and county boards of education, in submitting charter school petitions, applying for renewals, and annual reviews.

“It just seemed like it provided more confusion.” Because there is a 2005  appeals court decision in Kern County (Ridgecrest Charter School v. Sierra Sands Unified School District) that accepted that school district’s assessment of facilities space without challenge, she’s a bit unsure which would have precedence.

One thing is sure: As the weeks go on, the decision will be finely examined by any charter school in the state that is unhappy with its space allotment and any school district that must respond with an offer.

The districts must make their preliminary offer to charter schools by Feb. 1, so the coming weeks will bring much discussion.

While only the Los Altos School District Board trustees know what the next step is, Moore is hoping that the 2012-2013 request for facilities space is met with an adequate offer.

“I expect LASD to rectify its non-compliance and look forward to where we’re given reasonably equivalent school site in time for the next school year,” he said.

Creative Charter School Wins Renewal

Even after it won a 5-2 vote last week from the county Board of Education to renew its charter for five years, Bullis Charter School is still trying to overcome the elitist image stuck on the school when it opened for business about five years ago after a messy divorce from the Los Altos School District.

But after a slow start, the 465-student K-8 school has been able to outperform every other charter school in the state despite receiving $4,000 less per student in public funding than its compatriots in the Los Altos Elementary School District. Parents and the school foundation make up the difference so Bullis ends up with just over $11,000 per student, slightly less that the Los Altos district.

(We should also note that Bullis and the Los Altos district are involved in a lawsuit over whether the buildings provided to Bullis are adequate. An appeals court decision should be made public in about two months.)

Two of the seven county Board of Education members voted against renewing the Bullis charter, citing concerns about the school not working hard enough to recruit students of color from Los Altos and Mountain View, while filling most of its seats from the wealthy Los Altos Hills area. The charges are strongly disputed by Bullis officials, who provided numerous statistics to the contrary in their application for county approval.

For starters, charter schools are expected to reflect the community they serve, said the county board member Anna Song and Los Altos School District board member Tammy Logan. On that score, we believe Bullis hits a home run, with a far lower percentage of white students than the Los Altos district (67.7 to 51.6 percent for Bullis) and equal numbers for African American, Asian, and Native Hawaiians. Students of two or more races attend Bullis in much higher numbers than the district as a whole, (20.6 to 4.4 percent). A slightly lower percentage of Hispanic students were counted than attend district schools (5.2 to 5.6 percent), but that is hardly worth quibbling about.

We also disagree with the charge that recruiters at Bullis do not actively recruit in Mountain View and Los Altos. For the current school year, the school received 680 applications from students at 98 preschools and 133 elementary schools, with six students applying for every available seat. The school hosts a public lottery and randomly selects the incoming students. And in the current year, 30 special education students (6.5 percent) attended Bullis, more than twice the number from two years ago.

Charter schools like Bullis are succeeding in other districts on the Peninsula. Summit Prep, a high school located in Redwood City, faced similar critics when it was launched by a handful of parents from the affluent community of Portola Valley. And after enduring criticism that it was designed as a private “public” school for elite students, Summit’s lottery has muffled that charge and is proud that 100 percent of their graduating seniors are admitted to four-year colleges.

Small charter schools like Bullis can be laboratories of innovation, as well as home to students who might not fit in at more traditional schools. As a charter school, Bullis is able to create a unique and challenging educational experience for its students that could be a model for the Los Altos district to emulate. The county Board of Education made the right decision to give Bullis another five years.