Officials from a new charter school and the Mountain View Whisman School District locked horns at a school board meeting last week, accusing one another of stonewalling over strict accountability measures the district is seeking to impose.
The ongoing dispute meant that Bullis Mountain View's March 7 enrollment lottery would have to wait another day. And after an icy back-and-forth over which side is delaying the process and failing to negotiate in good faith, board members agreed that the argument was going nowhere and cut off the conversation.
Mountain View Whisman's school board reluctantly agreed on Dec. 20 to approve a new charter school in the district. Bullis Mountain View, an offshoot of the high-performing Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, aims to draw a significant number of low-income students who speak English as a second language. The school will accept 168 kids from kindergarten through second grade for the kick-off 2019-20 school year.
The school board's approval came with strings attached, including demands that the charter school make several changes to its admission preferences and academic assessments, and a concrete requirement that it enroll a certain number of low-income kids. Charter school officials agreed to those stipulations -- at least in concept -- shortly before the Dec. 20 meeting, and both sides were expected to hammer out a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on how to meet those obligations.
With important deadlines looming, district officials and Bullis Mountain View's leadership appear to have made no progress towards a signed MOU. Jennifer Anderson-Rosse, Bullis Mountain View's head of school, told board members at the March 7 meeting that she has serious outstanding concerns about the district's requests, and accused the district of failing to even discuss the terms of the agreement after late January.
"Although we had hoped that the district would work with us in good faith concerning its conditions of approval, the district has twice refused to discuss any of our concerns," she said.
Between the failure to come to the agreement -- and a demand by the district to show up and present to the board on the night of the enrollment lottery -- Anderson-Rosse said the March 7 lottery has been postponed to an undetermined date.
The draft MOU put together by Mountain View Whisman district leaders is a lengthy 20-page document outlining the expectations and rules of engagement that would drive the charter school's relationship with the district over the next three years, and many of the details are both uniform and uncontroversial. But a few sticking points have left Bullis Mountain View's founders uneasy. Among them is the demand that the charter school have student demographics that mirror the school district's population, specifically the number of kids who are economically disadvantaged. Doing so, Anderson-Rosse said, enforces a demographic quota that amounts to illegal discrimination.
"We cannot accept a district condition that is clearly against the law, so we won't," she said.
Other problems flagged by the charter school include requirements that sibling preference for admissions be removed or placed as a lower priority -- which Anderson-Rosse said would unfairly split families -- and that the charter school be required to use the district's reading and benchmark assessments three times a year. To date, the district hasn't shown Bullis Mountain View what those tests even look like or how the results would be used to assess performance, Anderson-Rosse said.
"This would impose moving targets in a dark room where we could not know if we met the districts demand until months later. This is unheard of and unworkable," she said.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph did not dispute that the discussion over the terms of the MOU petered out in January, but argued the onus is on Bullis Mountain View to adhere to the district's conditions -- saying the charter school has made "no progress" toward that goal. He said that Bullis Mountain View representatives are telling parents of prospective students not to worry about the requirements for economic status when signing up, and warned that the charter may be preparing to enroll kids in defiance of the district's conditions.
"What we are hearing and what we are seeing is that you plan on continuing with your enrollment priorities the way you wrote them out the first time -- which the board did not approve -- and then on top of that you aren't providing us with any information that suggests you are making progress towards any of those issues that need to be resolved," Rudolph said.
The delays not only hold the future enrollment of the charter school's 210 student applications in limbo, but it complicates planning for staffing and facilities at district schools. Between retirements and resignations, the district won't have to fire any teachers as a result of Bullis opening, but it's unclear precisely how many teachers will need to be at each campus for the upcoming school year.
School board member Jose Gutierrez criticized Bullis Mountain View representatives at the March 7 meeting for blaming the the lottery cancellation on the district's request to present at the meeting, and said that he was expecting a substantive presentation from the charter school rather than a verbal update.
"This is not a conversation in good faith," Gutierrez said. "And so we need to document everything in writing and share that with the superintendent and the board. If we ask you to share a presentation, make a presentation. Do not waste my time."
Board member Devon Conley said she believed the lottery was put off because Bullis Mountain View wasn't able to recruit the number of low-income families it claimed it could -- something charter school leaders deny -- while board member Ellen Wheeler encouraged both parties to work expeditiously to sign an agreement, outside of public board meetings if necessary.
Adding further difficulty to the cold exchange was the board's self-imposed time limit. Bullis Mountain View representatives were scheduled to present during the last item on a packed agenda, and trustees elected to extend the meeting only until 11 p.m. After blasting through what was supposed to be a lengthy discussion on a new school in North Bayshore and discussing the process under which the district would appoint someone to Bullis Mountain View's board of directors, charter school representatives had less than 30 minutes to unpack what had transpired behind the scenes since Dec. 20.
It's unclear what a compromise would look like between the district and the charter school. Rudolph told the Voice after the meeting that the district's conditions were approved by the school board and are non-negotiable. Low-income students must to be the top priority for enrollment admissions and the demographics must match the district's student population. The charter school needs measurable test scores that "shall exceed district-wide assessment results for all pupil subgroups by not less than 5 percent," according to draft MOU language, with no grace period for teachers and students to get accustomed to the new school. Rudolph said he does not have the authority to unilaterally negotiate new terms.
None of those requirements should be onerous, and they largely reflect what the charter school said it would do in its proposal to the school board, Rudolph said. Demanding that Bullis meet these requirements is simply holding the school accountable for its promises.
"If you didn't intend on enrolling low-income students and you didn't intend on closing the achievement gap -- which was what the whole argument has been centered around -- then it shouldn't have been included in the charter," he said.
Anderson-Rosse said her goal is to get "clarity" on ambiguous language in the MOU, rather than compromise the terms, so that Bullis Mountain View can move forward with its lottery and tell parents whether their children can attend the school.
Rudolph said the charter school has failed to provide even the most basic of information in recent months, like enrollment applications and promotional materials shared with interested parents. Instead, the district office has made California Public Records Act requests to compel Bullis Mountain View to provide documents. Those requests have been fruitless thus far.
District officials offered to meet with Bullis Mountain View representatives on March 22 to talk about the MOU, though Rudolph said, as of Monday, the charter school had yet to accept the offer. The agreement must be signed by June 30 at the very latest.
It's unclear what would happen if Bullis Mountain View moves forward with the charter petition as written and ignores the conditions set forth by the school board. Rudolph said it's too early to consider the possibility, but that he would likely consult with legal counsel about the district's options.