The Los Altos School District sent a strongly worded letter to the Santa Clara County Board of Education on Tuesday demanding that it prevent "longstanding discrimination" by Bullis Charter School, accusing it of seeking to enroll the wealthiest and least needy students in the district.
The letter, dated Sept. 10 and signed by all five Los Altos School District trustees, calls on the county board of education to take formal action preventing Bullis from giving priority enrollment to students residing in the wealthiest enclave within the school district's boundaries. It also urges the county to develop a "comprehensive desegregation plan" to bring Bullis Charter School's demographics in line with the school district it serves.
The letter goes on to slam the county board of education for failing to exercise its oversight powers over Bullis. That failure has enabled Bullis to have perpetually skewed demographics, according to the letter, which also demanded that the county board of education take a more active role in requiring Bullis to accept its fair share of low-income students, English language learners and other underrepresented student groups.
"The combination of BCS's discrimination and (Santa Clara County Board of Education's) neglect has not only harmed students but produced ever increasing adverse financial impacts on LASD, and is tearing apart a community that has an exceptional commitment to the highest quality public education yet whose laudable aspirations are stymied by an unregulated, divisive and discriminatory charter school," the letter states.
Joe Hurd, the board chair of Bullis, said the board hasn't had time to review the letter yet, but he was surprised at the inflammatory language and the timing, given the ongoing negotiations with LASD over a facilities agreement.
"Why are they picking this fight now? It makes no sense," he said.
Santa Clara County Office of Education spokeswoman Summer Reeves told the Voice that the agency is still reviewing the letter and analyzing the concerns regarding Bullis Charter School, and that the office and the county board of education take monitoring and oversight responsibilities very seriously.
Bullis Charter School previously had an enrollment preference for families residing in Los Altos Hills, which was gradually phased out over the course of a five-year agreement with the school district that expires this year. To the surprise of some Los Altos School District trustees, the phase-out was not permanent.
In a June letter to the district, Bullis board member Francis La Poll told the board that the charter school only agreed to take away the so-called hills preference in exchange for a long-term facilities agreement granting space for Bullis' current and future enrollment growth.
"In return for reducing the preference, BCS received tangible benefits from the negotiated (facilities use agreement)," La Poll said in the letter. "Those benefits expire on June 30, 2019. It is only logical that the restriction on the preference expires as well."
Referencing the district's decision in 2003 to close Bullis-Purissima School, La Poll described the preference as a safeguard in the event that the district closes the only public school serving a large portion of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills.
Los Altos school board president Jessica Speiser told the Voice that the enrollment preference is not up for negotiation, and that Bullis Charter School must do its job as a public school by serving students from all backgrounds, just like Los Altos School District schools. She said the county Office of Education, which oversees the charter school, has taken a frustrating hands-off approach to Bullis' skewed demographics.
"We need the county to do their job," Speiser said. "They've never had any oversight in this matter."
The Santa Clara County Office of Education has raised concerns about Bullis' demographics in the past. During the charter school's renewal process in 2016, a staff report noted that Bullis made strides in increasing its English learner population but still fell well short of enrolling a proportionate number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals -- a standard measure for student family income.
Although Bullis reportedly ramped up "outreach efforts" to recruit more socio-economically disadvantaged students, county staff raised concerns that the number of economically disadvantaged students remained around 1% of the school's enrollment in the 2014-15 school year.
Among the recommendations, county staff recommended that Bullis Charter School adjust admission preferences to include low-income students who reside outside of the Los Altos School District, which would be necessary in order to successfully mirror the demographics of the district.
The district's 17-page letter to the county references state data showing that 1.6% of students at Bullis Charter School are identified as socio-economically disadvantaged, compared to 6.2% in the district. The data also shows Bullis serves a disproportionately low number of English learners and students with disabilities, which Los Altos board members worry will only get worse with an enrollment preference.
"BCS's stated intention to invoke a preference for students residing within the Altos Hills -- a zip code recognized as one of the wealthiest in the country -- will only serve to exacerbate the now longstanding discriminatory impact upon these protected classes of students," the letter states.
Hurd called the letter, the timing and allegations "vindictive" and "weird," especially since LASD and Bullis are trying win public support for a controversial facilities agreement that could turn over the Egan Intermediate School campus to the charter school in exchange for limiting its enrollment growth.
Speiser said the board remains committed to resolving the district's long-standing feud with the charter school over enrollment growth and facilities, and that the letter should be seen as an entirely separate effort to ensure the school district and the charter school are on even ground when it comes to enrollment practices.