Mountain View Voice

News - June 15, 2012

Bullis heads back to court

by Nick Veronin

After a brief respite, the battle between Bullis Charter School and the Los Altos School District is returning to court.

For several months the two educational organizations have been engaging in negotiations led by professional arbitrators in an attempt to settle upon a long-term lease agreement that would give the charter school a somewhat permanent home somewhere within the district.

Early last week, LASD board member Mark Goines thought his district had reached a tentative agreement with Bullis. However, on Friday, June 8, it was announced that the charter school and the district would be heading back to court to continue their years-long, potentially precedent-setting legal contest.

The move surprised officials at LASD, according to Goines. The district's board of trustees approved an interim agreement with Bullis at a its June 4 public meeting.

"I thought we were going to bring the community together and we were going to compromise a little bit, but no such luck," he said.

But officials at Bullis said the district had no reason to be surprised, as they clearly knew that things had deteriorated greatly since the two educational organizations had reached a tentative interim agreement in early May.

"There was no surprise. BCS is fully ready to honor the mediated agreement that was jointly published on May 7," said Ken Moore, chair of the Bullis board. But the school cannot accept the district's current proposal. "The interim agreement was May 7 and anything after that was backsliding on their part. They kept all the consessions we made in order to get to a long term deal and gave us none of the benefit of those concessions."

According to Moore, the interim agreement was reached based on the proposition that the district would issue a bond that would provide them the funds to build a tenth site in the district. When the preliminary community polls on the bond were conducted, and the district got a response they didn't expect, they changed their tune, he said. "Rather than just stand up and say we don't want to do this deal, they created this other completely wild scenario which was to take everything we gave in the mediation and give you nothing in return."

That's not quite right, said Doug Smith, vice president of the Los Altos School District's board of trustees.

The way Smith tells it, Moore is right about one thing. The district did get an unexpected response from the community when they polled local residents about the possibility of issuing a school bond to build a new campus: residents didn't want the new facility to house an LASD school; they wanted it to be the new home for Bullis.

Under the initial interim agreement, Smith said, district officials proposed building a new site, moving a current district school to the new site and giving the vacated site to Buillis.

But, Smith said, as many district residents told him, they had built their lives around the current school structure and they didn't want their children to change schools, even if they would be going to a "new bright and shiny school."

When the district told BCS that the district could build them a new school at an as yet undetermined site, Bullis said they couldn't go for that unless they knew more about where their new school would be.

"Unfortunately, they wouldn't accept the interim agreement without that specificity being there," Smith said, "which we obviously couldn't do because we hadn't nailed down all the details that were necessary." So, the district attempted to hammer out a new temporary deal with BCS — offering them extra portables on their current site at Egan until the district could get the proposed building of a tenth site straightened out.

The way Moore framed it, his district couldn't simply agree to an unknown campus in an unknown location. He added that he felt like the new interim deal the district offered was akin to a bait and switch — like Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown just as the poor kid was about to kick. "Unfortunately, for me," Moore said. "I'm Charlie Brown."

The two educational organizations have been in and out of court since 2009. A lower court first ruled in favor of the district, but that decision was overturned on appeal, and when the California Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the Los Altos School District, the two parties entered into professional mediation.

Now that mediation has failed, the Bullis lawyers are once again asking the courts to enforce the March 23 ruling of California Superior Court Judge Patricia Lucas, who issued an order declaring that LASD "violated Proposition 39 and its regulations..." by (among other things) housing Bullis students on a temporary campus with significantly less student space than at comparison group schools, according to a press release put out by the charter school. Lucas has set an August 15 hearing on the matter, according to an email sent out by Moore.

Bullis board member Anne Marie Gallagher, along with Moore, made it clear in previous interviews with the Voice that Bullis needs its own campus and it needs it as soon as possible.

"I think we've been working hard to come to a compromise and that takes time," Goines said "I think we've been very deliberate going through this process. I just think its going to take a long time."

In January, Diane Ravitch, an educational adviser to presidents, education author and expert on charter schools, said this case, once resolved, has the potential to set a significant precedent.

In the Bullis email, Moore said that unless something changes between now and the beginning of the school year, the charter school will send its kindergarten through sixth-graders to classrooms on the Egan campus and the remaining seventh- and eighth-grade kids to the Blach Intermediate School campus.

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