Members of the Los Altos School District said last Wednesday they were considering suing the county over newly approved enrollment rules for Bullis Charter School.
The district board members' outrage came in response to a ruling late last month by the county Board of Education, which approved a policy giving Los Altos Hills residents preferred enrollment at the school.
The district voted unanimously at last Wednesday's board meeting to investigate the legal ramifications of the action. The LASD board may file suit against the county if its legal counsel finds the ruling to be in conflict with state law, said board member David Pefley.
Controversy is nothing new for Bullis Charter School and its predecessor, Bullis-Purissima Elementary School, which the district closed down but later promised to reopen under pressure from Los Altos Hills residents. More recently, the district became host to a fight over boundary changes which will pull about two-dozen students-including some Mountain View residents-out of Santa Rita School and force them to attend Bullis-Purissima when it reopens in the fall of 2009.
On Nov. 27, the Santa Clara County Board of Education seemed to pour salt on those wounds when it voted 5-2 to allow Bullis Charter School to set aside enrollment for students living in the Bullis-Purrissima attendance area in Los Altos Hills. LASD board members said they were floored by the ruling.
"Frankly, I was shocked. Everyone's jaws dropped," said Pefley.
Pefley said the board immediately heard from parents in the district who were similarly upset by the ruling.
"We have received numerous phone calls and e-mails from parents who are confused as to why the county school board would approve an attendance preference for the wealthiest part of the school district, when everyone equally shoulders the financial burden," Pefley said. "They can't understand that rationale, and neither can I."
Bullis Charter School, a kindergarten through sixth grade elementary school with 288 students, gives first priority to returning students, and then to siblings of current students, said Bullis board president Ken Moore.
Under the new policy, 50 percent of the remaining spots will be filled with students from the Bullis-Purissima attendance area, and the other 50 percent will be open to students from anywhere in the Los Altos School District, which covers Los Altos and portions of Mountain View and Palo Alto.
Moore said Bullis Charter wanted to allocate that space to Hills students because the school has historically served families from that area.
"As a board, we felt it was important to have a core community; we view that as a useful thing," he said.
Bullis Charter offers smaller class sizes, individualized teaching plans and an emphasis on electives, including art, music, drama, foreign languages and environmental sciences.
Moore said Bullis Charter has been very successful and "enormously oversubscribed," with only one in six students who apply allowed in.
In light of the school's popularity, the recently approved policy should allow it to "maintain our status quo," said Moore. He added, "I view this as such an innocuous change. I'm totally amazed they feel that some huge change has happened."
T.N. Ho, who represents Los Altos on the county Board of Education and voted in favor of the amendment, said the board checked with its lawyers and was told "this is allowable."
Ho said he agreed with Bullis Charter School officials that the amendment was beneficial for the school's tight-knit community. He said they told the county board during their presentation Nov. 27 that the school's minority population would be increased, not decreased, by the new enrollment policy, a detail which appealed to him.
Additionally, "They told us because many parent volunteers are from that area, they felt that there is a core group that really helps with school sprit and also with school funding," Ho said.
Bullis Charter School requests that all families donate a minimum of $3,500 per child to the school every year.
Ho also said he has been surprised by the community's response.
"Nobody came to the community hearing. I question why these people are speaking up now. No one came to say they thought it was unfair," he said.
But county board member Gary Rummelhoff, who along with Grace Mah vote against the amendment, said he was troubled by the enrollment change, which seems to secure placement for wealthier families.
"I was told they provide substantial financial support to the school. But I think that flies in the face of what a charter school is about," he said. "Charter schools have to do with innovative programs and underserved populations. I'm concerned about the precedent this sets."
Rummelhoff said there is no other charter school in the county with a similar enrollment policy. He added that the county's legal team did advise that the amendment was within the law.
Bullis Charter's new enrollment policy will go into effect for the 2008-09 school year. In the meantime, LASD board member Pefley said his district will seek legal clarification on behalf of the parents who have contacted his office.