Mountain View Whisman School District board members voted 4-1 Thursday night to approve a new charter school -- Bullis Charter School's first expansion outside of Los Altos.
But the decision came with a whole lot of strings attached, with board members and district officials demanding significant modifications to the charter petition -- the school's founding document -- in the moments leading up to approval. It was unclear at the end of the meeting whether charter school leaders were willing or interested in following all of the stipulations.
It was also a begrudging vote, with some trustees and Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph laying into the charter school's leadership for being out of touch and trying to steamroll its way into a community it didn't understand.
Board member Jose Gutierrez was the lone vote against the charter petition.
Bullis Charter School officials announced in September that they were planning to expand the school and sought to create a new campus next door in Mountain View Whisman. A new nonprofit called Bullis Mountain View (BMV) was formed, spearheaded mostly by families and employees from the existing Los Altos charter school, which submitted the petition in October to open a school in fall 2019.
Representatives from BMV say the school is designed to serve a high percentage of low-income and English learner students, who typically fall behind on academic performance. The goal, according to the petition, is for 40 percent of the charter school's students to be those who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
More than a dozen parents and students came to the Dec. 20 meeting to make one last show of support for the charter school prior to the vote, wearing yellow shirts with the school's logo and talking at length about the school's valuable academic programs and friendly environment. Children spoke about the power of project-based learning as well as personalized education plans they call focused learning goals.
But the proposal has been met with huge pushback by hundreds families in the Mountain View Whisman School District, many of whom attended the Dec. 6 public hearing of the charter petition, making an emphatic plea for either the board to deny the charter petition or for BMV to hit the brakes on its plans.
Superintendent Rudolph made clear that his recommendation to approve the charter school was a reluctant acceptance that state laws make it very difficult for a school district to deny a charter petition. But he said he couldn't make that recommendation without counter-balancing it with his grievances against the way BMV officials went about proposing the charter school, saying it showed disregard for collaboration and community buy-in.
"I know what my recommendation says, and it pains me to write it, but I cannot go forward without at least expressing how I truly feel," Rudolph said. "I have employees that are gonna lose their jobs, I have teachers who are talking about the loss of programs because of the additional funds that we're going to have to pay for you."
The clearest problem identified by the district is timing. He said the district was given virtually no lead time to prepare for the charter petition, which he said he first heard about from the Voice in September, and that the charter school's proposed opening date in fall 2019 gives the district little time to find classroom space required under Proposition 39. It also meant the Mountain View Whisman community, which he said expects community engagement from its schools, didn't get a real chance to weigh in on the proposal or even digest that it was coming.
"Yes, we will welcome you and we will do our best to collaborate with you, but at the end of the day this will be a transactional relationship," he said. "Because you believe that you can do something, and that the only way you can do it is by shoving it down our throats."
Rudolph, who pointed out he has led charter schools as an administrator elsewhere in the country, insisted that his complaints have nothing to do with charter schools on the whole or whether the proposed school by BMV will succeed, but everything to do with process.
"This has nothing to do with change, our ability to adjust with change. This has nothing to do with what they purport they will be able to do," he said "It has to do with the fact that they showed up to Castro on the dedication day, and that they looked at the facility as if they were looking at a buffet table."
In the same vein, board president Tamara Wilson said she would be remiss not to acknowledge that PTA presidents, teachers, district staff and community members are against the charter school coming to Mountain View, and that BMV's insistence on starting in fall 2019 is terrible timing. Attendance boundaries were recently redrawn and set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year, enrollment priorities were completely revamped and a new school -- Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary -- is set to open that same year.
"Our community underwent a long battle for boundaries and changing it and it was just starting to heal from this," Wilson said. "If you had been paying attention and involved and talking with our community you would know that, and you don't."
Newly elected board member Devon Conley asked whether the charter school would be amenable to delaying opening its school to the 2020-21 school year. Rudolph said that idea came up in conversations with BMV officials, but he was never able to get it in writing despite recent efforts over the last week.
Gutierrez, the sole dissenting vote, said the district has made a big shift towards accountability and transparency over the last four years, with plenty of community engagement along the way, and that BMV's foray into Mountain View Whisman feels like a one-sided conversation with no real two-way communication. He also said he wasn't buying the argument for more school choice.
"I think people forget, or maybe our community members here in the yellow t-shirts don't know, that we already have two choice programs," Gutierrez said. "We already have Mistral and we also have Stevenson. With the inclusion of Bullis Mountain View then we would have a third, so the argument about having a choice doesn't resonate with me for obvious reasons."
A list of demands
The motion itself wasn't a clean approval of BMV's charter school proposal, and explicitly states that approval was contingent on a series of "recommended" changes that the school's leadership is now expected to make.
District officials used the meeting as a chance to lay out a series of concerns they had about BMV and its ability to serve the low-income and English learner students it seeks to enroll. Beyond recruitment of these underserved students -- acknowledged as an uphill battle -- big questions remain over how the district would actually hold the charter school accountable for its promises, and whether it would even have comparable test scores to figure out if the charter school measures up to expectations.
A lengthy staff report from district administrators criticized BMV for what they argue is inadequate representation from the community, from top to bottom. A majority of the proposed board members are not from Mountain View, and the charter school lacks support from "any organization representing Mountain View students and families," according to the report.
"Many, if not most, of the individuals speaking in support of BMV were not residents of Mountain View but were instead from Los Altos or associated with Bullis Los Altos," according to the staff report.
Staff recommended what amounts to a conditional approval of the charter school, complete with a list of required changes to the petition. This includes revamping the enrollment preferences so students living near Castro, Theuerkauf and Monta Loma elementary schools are given top priority during the enrollment lottery, and a requirement that the charter school use the same trimester tests given to district students. Students at the charter school would only be "exceeding" district test scores -- a promise made in the petition -- if the performance exceeds "districtwide assessment results for all pupil subgroups by not less than 5 percent."
Even with those requirements, staff recommended that board members only give the charter school a three-year term, ending in June 2022, rather than the five years sought by the petition.
Regional members of the California Charter School Association bristled at the idea, sending a letter to the board Tuesday calling the idea of approving the charter with conditions "legally questionable." The letter, signed by regional director Janine Ramirez, goes on to say that anything less than a full five-year term would "undermine" a new charter school and would leave it with far too little testing data from which the district could judge performance.
"Because the school proposes a slow-growth model ... an abbreviated three-year term will require the school to submit its petition for renewal with only a single year of state testing data," Ramirez wrote. "This means that your board will be forced to decide the fate of students, educators, and families with little more than the current petition."
The board's vote included all of the recommendations, including the three-year term ending in June 2022. Board member Ellen Wheeler said she felt the three-year period was an appropriate amount of time for the charter school to get its bearings and build up plenty of data for the district to judge BMV's performance. The abbreviated charter petition shows "sensitivity" to vulnerable students who will be diverted from district schools to an untested charter, she said.
"I know Bullis is a good school and we hear all the testimony -- it's a good school," Wheeler said. "We don't know if it's a good school for a large number of low-income (English language learner) students."
In a statement Friday morning, BMV officials called the vote a milestone in the organization's plans to serve district students, and that they looked forward to working with the district's leadership and sharing the charter school's "unique educational model" with the community.
"We would like to thank all of the gracious and hardworking BMV supporters," Bullis board member Clara Roa said in the statement. "We certainly could not have achieved this outcome without their help."
With the charter approved, the district is now responsible for finding a place to put the school when it opens next year.
The charter school plans to enroll 168 students in transitional kindergarten through second grade for its first year, ramping up to 320 K-5 students by its third year in operation. The district has a Feb. 1 deadline to make a facilities offer to BMV.