An open letter signed by a broad coalition of Mountain View Whisman School District parents is calling on Bullis Charter School to drop plans to expand into Mountain View.
The letter, sent to the board of directors of Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, argues that the charter school's leadership has failed to understand the culture and the needs of Mountain View Whisman students, and that planting a charter school in the district would further segregate schools and harm the low-income and minority students it seeks to serve.
"We believe that, without fully understanding the unique cultures, strengths and challenges that contribute to the fabric of our student community, your proposed plan would devastate Mountain View’s public schools," they said in the letter.
Signed by PTA leadership members from every school in the district, the strongly worded missive comes just days before a scheduled public hearing for the proposed charter school. Bullis Mountain View, an off-shoot of the existing Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, submitted a petition in October to open a new campus within the Mountain View Whisman School District. District board members are required to hold a public hearing, set for Thursday, Dec. 6, followed by a formal vote to approve or deny the petition, scheduled for Dec. 20.
Members of the Bullis Mountain View team are hoping to do a soft opening of the school with transitional kindergarten through second grade classes in the upcoming 2019-20 school year, ramping up to 320 K-5 students in future years. The petition's stated goal is to enroll a high number of low-income students (those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals) -- totaling 40 percent of the student body -- and provide an education tailored to lift the academic performance of the underserved students.
The letter by PTA parents claims Bullis Mountain View is taking a misguided approach to the district's achievement gap, which seeks to supplant -- rather than supplement -- efforts already underway to help students from low-income families or who are not proficient in English. It points out that Bullis Charter School's track record for helping low-income students is virtually non-existent, and that less than 2 percent of the students at Bullis' Los Altos charter school qualify as low-income.
The proposed charter school's ability to serve these students would be hamstrung from the outset because it would be difficult to attract low-income and minority students from all over the district who may not have the ability to send their children to school across town, the parents argue in the letter. Bullis Mountain View would "siphon off more affluent and likely higher-performing students" from district schools, creating more segregation and reducing volunteer hours and financial donations at Mountain View Whisman schools that already strapped for resources.
"Bullis will provide a private school experience to a small number of students at taxpayers' expense," according to the letter. An online version of the letter had the signatures of 304 parents and community members as of noon on Wednesday, with more coming in.
Mistral Elementary School PTA president Sara Kopit-Olson told the Voice that the concerns laid out in the letter had been lingering for several weeks, and came up during past PTA president meetings with district officials. There was unanimous disdain for the idea of a charter school in the district, she said. All she sees coming out of the planned expansion of Bullis is more divisiveness and a loss of dollars going to district-run schools.
"I just see a lot of negatives," she said. "I see a lot of segregation and less equity in the community."
The likely outcome, Kopit-Olson said, is that Bullis Mountain View would divert the more affluent families away from the school district, resulting in a reduced budget, fewer volunteers and fewer donations. The Mountain View Education Foundation, while a boon for arts, music, electives and science, seeks to raise about $750,000 this year, compared to the staggering $3.5 million goal from the neighboring Los Altos Education Foundation.
"It will be a draw on our school district, and we are not a wealthy school district," she said.
Jennifer Anderson-Rosse, head of school for Bullis Mountain View, said that she and the founding team made a big effort to get to know the Mountain View community well before submitting the petition. She said she has met with district officials for the last year, and got to know plenty of families while living in the city for six years. The leadership proposed for Bullis Mountain View is stacked with Mountain View residents with deep roots in the community, she said.
While elements of Los Altos' Bullis Charter School would transfer over to Bullis Mountain View, Anderson-Rosse said the charter petition makes a clear, conscious effort to tailor the proposed school to meet the needs of Mountain View residents, particularly the higher number of low-income and Latino families. The full-day transitional kindergarten and kindergarten programs planned for the school are a direct response to those needs, she said.
Anderson-Rosse said she has reached out to PTA leadership in every Mountain View Whisman school to see if they are willing to meet for a conversation, not just to answer questions but to hear what parents have to say.
"We are still open to collaboration, we are still open to meetings with parents," she said. "We really are open to it."
In an email response to the PTA letter, Bullis parent Grace Yang -- who has helped spearhead the effort to expand the charter school into Mountain View Whisman -- argued that Bullis Charter School has built a strong track record of helping underserved students leading up to the charter petition. She and other Bullis parents have run the Bullis Boosters Camp for six years, aimed at providing a free summer school program for low-income families residing in Mountain View, as well as a Stretch to Kindergarten program to get kids up to speed prior to beginning school.
While it's true that the existing Bullis Charter School in Los Altos does not serve a high number of low-income families, that's largely a product of demographics, Yang argues. She said there are only about 150 low-income Hispanic students in the Los Altos School District, versus the more than 1,000 in Mountain View Whisman.
Yang appealed for a more positive relationship between Bullis Mountain View and parents in Mountain View Whisman going forward, and that she hates to see parents going down a "non-productive path" similar to what Los Altos School District has done -- something she believes has "harmed all of its students."
"While I understand having a new school in the district next year is not the ideal situation for many parents, I would love for us to come up with a more collaborative and informed approach," she said in the email.
The core question facing the school district this month is whether the school board should approve or deny the charter petition. If the school board approves the petition, the district retains some oversight over the charter school, including being able to monitor Bullis Mountain View's finances and ability to meet its stated goals. If the school board denies the petition, Bullis Mountain View can appeal to the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which could approve the charter despite the district's wishes, leaving Mountain View Whisman without any oversight authority.
In October, outside legal counsel for the district told board members that, barring inherent flaws in the charter petition, the district must approve the charter. Anti-charter sentiment and concerns about the loss of district staff and funding do not qualify as reasons to deny a petition under state law.
"If we deny the petition, it'll get kicked up to the county Board of Education, which will approve it," said Bill Lambert, a former Mountain View Whisman school board member and Monta Loma parent.
Lambert and 20 other parents at Monta Loma met at the Day Worker Center last week to talk about the district's future if the charter school comes to fruition, particularly for the district's more sparsely enrolled schools -- Castro, Theuerkauf and Monta Loma elementaries. Speaking for himself, Lambert said it's essential that the district have a triage plan for what happens when the charter school grows and pulls children away from the existing schools, which could eventually lead to a school closure.
"It's going to make some of our schools less tenable," he said. "Everybody sort of accepts that Bullis will grow very rapidly, and I think in a couple years they will take over a school."
What that plan could look like is anyone's guess, Lambert said, but the district may need to ditch the neighborhood school model that has largely governed decisions related to transfer policies and new attendance boundaries over the last three years. The new boundaries and the planned opening of the new Jose Antonio Vargas school in the Whisman area of the city, he said, set the stage for dwindling enrollment at Theuerkauf and Monta Loma, which is only going to get worse with Bullis moving in.
But the district really doesn't have the grounds to deny the charter petition, Lambert said. Bullis meets all of the criteria spelled out under California law, there's an underserved population in Mountain View and Bullis Charter School, one of the most successful charter schools in the country, is seeking to serve those families. Whether or not they have a high chance of success, Bullis deserves the right to try, he said.
"They have excellent management, support and funding, and if there's any charter school that should be allowed to do this, it's Bullis," Lambert said. "So it'll be hard for the county board of education to deny."
Kopit-Olson disagrees, and said it's been frustrating that the district appears appears resigned to approve the charter petition, looking at the vote as a ministerial act for a foregone conclusion. She said she believes the district wields little power over the charter school regardless of whether the district is the chartering the authority or not.
"If we approve the charter we still have no say in what the charter school does, in enforcing standards," she said.
The public hearing on the charter petition will be held at the Thursday, Dec. 6, school board meeting, which will be held at Graham Middle School's multipurpose room on 1175 Castro Street. The open session begins at 6:15 p.m., and will start with the public hearing.