Bullis Charter School's board of directors raised a lot of concerns Monday night over the Los Altos School District's plan to split charter school students across three school sites, further fracturing a school community that has long sought a single campus.
The plan, voted on by the district's board of trustees last week, called for Bullis Charter School's 2019-20 students to be housed in portable buildings divided between Egan Junior High School, Blach Intermediate School and Loyola Elementary School. Bullis Charter School is planning for an enrollment spurt over the next three years, and district board members concluded it was infeasible to house as many as 1,200 of its students on the junior high campuses.
School districts are required by law to provide facilities for charter school students who reside in the district under a process laid out in California's Proposition 39 law. It's been a source of contention between Los Altos School District and Bullis for years, prompting legal battles over what qualifies as "reasonably equivalent" facilities.
Echoing those past concerns, Bullis board member Andrea Eyring laid out a myriad of places where the district's facilities offer for the 2019-20 school year appears to fall short of the equity guaranteed under state law. At the Feb. 4 charter school board meeting, she said that Bullis was allocated 960 square feet per classroom, a sort of bare-bones approach without regard for the larger kindergarten and middle-school classrooms typically available at other schools.
Other deficiencies cited by the charter school include a lack of so-called STEM rooms, which are available at Los Altos School District's elementary school sites but not for the charter school, and an under-allocation of space available for special education and flexible uses, she said. The newly added Bullis site, Loyola, doesn't include facilities for a computer lab, science room or art room, nor does it include custodial space, storage space or a place to serve student meals, Eyring said.
But above all, Eyring said the district did not clearly demonstrate why the increased charter school enrollment couldn't be handled at Egan and Blach, without Loyola. She said the district has excess capacity on the school sites, claiming the combined enrollment across Egan and Blach will decline by between 157 and 199 students compared to "previous years." Adding a third site is disruptive to both district and Bullis families and requires redundant facilities.
"LASD can fully accommodate all the students at Egan and Blach," she said. "A third site is really unnecessary."
In coming up with the 199-student number, Bullis officials told the Voice they took the highest enrollment reached at Blach and Egan, which actually fell on separate years, and matched that combined amount against their own projections for junior high school enrollment for the 2019-20 school year. The actual delta between peak junior high enrollment and current enrollment is 98 students, according to state data.
Several parents at the meeting urged the charter school's leadership to find some kind of middle ground with the school district and reach a compromise on both facilities and future enrollment growth. Almond parent Jon Winny said he worries that Bullis' leadership is focused more on larger motives related to the charter school movement, rather than meeting the needs of the parents Bullis already has, some of whom are shocked and dismayed that the two parties are constantly embattled.
"Both sides are taking a willful position to bury their heads in the sand, throw bombs over the fence and wait for what comes back," he said.
Other parents laid more of the blame on Bullis, criticizing the charter school's opaque plans to expand its presence in Los Altos without an obvious place to put the extra students. Oak parent Tara Williamson said Bullis' uncontrolled growth is of "great concern" to the whole district community, and that the school district needs some kind of agreed-upon cap on enrollment in order to reliably plan for the future. Loyola parent Nina Hinrichs said the charter school needs to be more publicly transparent about its growth plans, and that the disclosure that the school would expand from 900 students to 1,200 in just a few short years -- first revealed to the district's hired demographer last year -- wasn't adequate for planning facilities.
Bullis parent Jill Jene said the numbers shouldn't have come as a total surprise, and that district leaders knew about the 1,200-student projection over the summer when considering what to do with a tenth school site in Mountain View. Jene said her worry is that the facilities provided by the school district could shortchange Bullis students, leaving them with less space to learn compared to the rest of the district. Compared to schools like Covington or Loyola, she said, there's a big equity gap for Bullis Charter School.
Linda Lukas, a manager at the Bullis campus at Blach Intermediate, said it's difficult to hear all the animosity in the district against Bullis, most of which she said is unwarranted, and that the further separation of the charter school onto three campuses is unfair.
"I believe that as a public school -- and we are a public school, that was started by public school parents -- that we are all entitled to equal facilities," she said. "That no school should be forced to fragment themselves, because that is not good for the community or the students."
Few members of Bullis' board of directors weighed in after the comments, in part because of an upcoming closed-door negotiations with the school district scheduled for Feb. 5, the day after the board meeting. Bullis board chair Joe Hurd said the mediated discussions could bring both parties to a resolution outside of the Proposition 39 process, and that the charter school's leadership may be reticent to speak in order to avoid inflaming tensions.
Talks on a facilities agreement began over a year ago as leaders from both the district and the charter school attempted to craft a successor to the five-year facilities use agreement, which spelled out enrollment growth each year and shared use of facilities at both junior high schools from 2014 to 2019. The closed-door talks reportedly went nowhere fast, later relied on a mediator and had ceased at some point during 2018.
But the latest round of talks could be a glimmer of hope. In a joint message Wednesday morning, representatives from both the district and Bullis stated that the talks Tuesday were productive and that there can be some kind of resolution, "albeit with difficult compromises on both sides." The upcoming Proposition 39 deadlines have been extended by two weeks to focus on continued negotiations, according to the statement.