Mountain View Voice

News - November 4, 2011

LASD loses Bullis suit on appeal

by Nick Veronin

A California appellate court has ruled that the Los Altos School District has not provided "reasonably equivalent" public school facilities to Bullis Charter School, overturning a decision made by the county court.

While officials with the charter school hailed the decision, the superintendent of the school district expressed disappointment.

On Oct. 28, the California Court of Appeal for the Sixth District unanimously overturned a November 2009 ruling issued by the Santa Clara County Superior Court. The initial ruling rejected Bullis' complaints that the district had violated Proposition 39 by not equitably sharing its facilities with the charter school.

In reversing the lower court's decision, the appellate court ruled that the district had failed to tally more than 1 million square feet of space that should have been counted when calculating the "reasonably equivalent" share of public school facilities it is required to provide Bullis under the provisions outlined in Proposition 39. The court also found that the district overstated the facilities it offered to the charter school.

"We're pleased with the appellate court's decision," said Ken Moore, chair of Bullis' board of directors, adding that he views the decision as a win not only for Bullis, but for charter schools throughout California. "This has much broader reach than Bullis and the Los Altos School District. This is going to help push other charter schools across the state to get the facilities they deserve."

Jeffrey Baier, LASD's superintendent, said the district has "always been committed to providing reasonably equivalent facilities to the children in our district, as well as the children who attend the charter school. It's disappointing that the court didn't recognize that has been our commitment."

Baier maintains that his district has always worked earnestly to meet the requirements outlined by Proposition 39 — a piece of legislation passed in 2000, which, among other things, laid out guidelines for how school districts should share their resources with charter schools.

According to Proposition 39, a school district's facilities — its land, buildings and other such assets — must be "shared fairly" with any charter school within a district's boundaries.

What is "fair" is determined by accounting for all the space and facilities available at "comparison schools" — those schools within a district that are most similar to a given charter school — and then calculating what the charter school ought to have access to based upon those campuses.

This latest battle between Bullis and the LASD began in September 2008, when the charter school made its annual "Proposition 39 facilities request." The charter school filed suit on June 10, 2009, after repeatedly disputing the district's offer.

An LASD press release makes a point of mentioning that this decision was indeed a reversal — in "November 2009, the Honorable James P. Kleinberg of the Santa Clara County Superior Court rejected almost all of BCS's legal contentions in a ruling that favored the district."

However, according to Moore, this latest judgment is much more valid than the previous one made by Judge Kleinberg.

"As far as I'm concerned this is the first time we had a thorough review of the facts," Moore said, noting that the appellate court has many more resources and a larger staff capable of sifting through all the evidence submitted — more than 2,000 pages of it by Moore's estimate.

"Judge Kleinberg started his discussion in the court by saying, 'I haven't read all the papers,'" Moore said, recalling the day the initial decision was handed down.

The district's press release also called the ruling "the latest chapter of the ongoing legal proceedings between the charter school and the district."

When asked if he felt that Bullis has been overly litigious or if relations between his district and the charter school were strained, Baier would only note that Bullis has filed four lawsuits against the district since it was founded eight years ago.

The court did not ultimately rule that the district acted in bad faith. However, in its published decision, it found that the LASD "acted arbitrarily by failing to apply the proper legal standards in its facilities offer to Bullis."

In a footnote toward the end of the 48-page decision, the court observed there was evidence that the district may have intentionally overlooked the space and overstated the facilities offered:

"It was suggested by Bullis's counsel at oral argument that the District's Facilities Offer was made in bad faith and without regard to its obligations under Proposition 39," the court wrote in the footnote. "There is certainly evidence in the record ... from which such a finding could be made."

Baier flatly denied that his district acted in bad faith when making its Proposition 39 calculations.

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