After being locked out of their classrooms on the Blach Intermediate School campus for 10 days, officials with Bullis Charter School were given the keys at a meeting of the Los Altos School District's board of trustees on Aug. 12 one week before the charter school's first day of class.
While parents and officials with BCS expressed outrage, calling the move "hostile" and "unprecedented," members of the LASD board said that they were simply trying to get the charter school's leadership to sign on to a facilities use agreement.
The lockout marked a sharp increase in tensions between the two organizations, with parents from Bullis staging a protest outside the district's main office on Aug. 8.
According to Martha McClatchie, a Bullis parent who helped organize the rally, she and the other protesters were very upset that district officials changed the locks at Blach. "As a parent, I'm alarmed that the Los Altos School District would do a lockout," McClatchie said.
Mark Goines, an LASD board member, acknowledged that the district had changed the locks at Blach, but said that the district had good reason to do so, as the district was waiting for officials with BCS to sign the facilities use agreement.
In the past, LASD has not required that BCS sign the agreement before the start of the school year, Goines said. However, California's charter school law, Proposition 39, says that a district can require such an action before handing over facilities to a charter.
At the Aug. 12 meeting a full copy of the facilities agreement -- which was hundreds of pages in length -- was given to Bullis officials and the cover letter to the agreement was handed out to anyone who wanted a copy. About 80 to 100 people were in attendance, according to estimates by both Bullis and LASD officials.
The agreement was accompanied by keys to the rooms that had been locked since Aug. 2 and officials from LASD explained that in accepting the keys Bullis officials were agreeing to the facilities use agreement, whether they signed it or not.
"We just expect them to live up to that agreement," Goines said. "The law is pretty simple: if they occupy the district's facilities they agree to the terms of the final offer that we give them."
The problem, according to Bullis officials, is that there is no way the charter can possibly live up to the agreement (FUA).
For starters, the agreement dictates that only BCS' middle school students are allowed on the Blach portion of the charter school's split campus, according to John Phelps a member of the BCS board of directors. Bullis' elementary-aged students are to remain on the Egan Junior High School portion of BCS' split campus.
Phelps said that will not work for BCS, as the charter school's program requires students from elementary and middle school to interact with one another in what he called a buddy system. Additionally, there are science facilities that the charter only has access to at Blach and not at Egan, and Bullis' elementary teachers have lesson plans that require the use of those facilities.
On top of that, Phelps said, the district has placed a limit on the number of children BCS may enroll, which he said might result in the charter having to turn kids away.
"If we sign the FUA that they asked us to sign -- or, I could say 'are forcing us to sign' -- we would be in immediate violation of the agreement," Phelps said, describing the situation as a "catch-22."
Raising the rent
According to Phelps, the district is raising BCS' "rent" -- the amount of money the charter must contribute to the district to use its facilities -- by "five-fold."
Goines said that much of what Phelps claims is exaggerated. The way he tells it, the district is roughly doubling the use fee it is charging BCS, raising it from around $100,000 to around $200,000. He explained that was necessary, as the charter will be using more space. The charter estimates it will have about 645 students this year -- an increase of about 130 over last year's enrollment numbers.
While district did place a limit on the number of students BCS may have at each campus, it based that cap on official enrollment estimates obtained from the charter school, he said.
And when it comes to the facilities agreement, Goines said the district had been working with BCS since April on an arrangement that would be agreeable to both educational organizations and that the charter school officials had refused to sign that agreement, which Goines said he found "perplexing."
The way Goines tells it, two board members from each educational organization met on Monday, Aug. 5, and worked out the final details of a facilities agreement. After that meeting, Goines said the district sent the final version of the agreement to BCS. But they never heard anything back.
Phelps countered by saying the meeting Goines referenced was highly informal -- a simple exchange of words in a parking lot.
According to Phelps, it has been LASD officials who have refused to cooperate with the Bullis board, which he said has been working "feverishly" since April 1 to negotiate a deal that both parties find agreeable. The district has been inflexible to requests for changes in the FUA, he said, and officials with LASD have "dragged their feet" and blown off chances to meet and negotiate.
When asked whether the student enrollment cap was based upon BCS projections, Phelps said he couldn't be sure, and a Bullis spokesman said that it was irrelevant -- saying the real issue was the lockout and the way the district is forcing the charter school into an agreement it can't possibly abide by.
With officials on both sides of the debate vigorously defending their actions it seems clear there is no end in sight to the conflict between Bullis Charter School and the Los Altos School District.
One BCS parent seemed to think that the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which granted Bullis its charter, might be able to step in. In an open letter addressed to the board she implored them to help.
However, according to Toni Cordova, a chief strategy officer with the SCC Office of Education, said there was little the board could do. Though the board is "very aware" of the situation, its "authority is very limited at this point," Cordova said. "They are working closely with both parties and would love to find a resolution."