Bullis Charter School will not give priority enrollment to students residing in wealthier portions of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills, marking the latest development in a heated debate over whether the charter school's enrollment practices and recruiting efforts amount to discrimination.
In an Oct. 11 letter to the Santa Clara County Board of Education, Bullis board chair Joe Hurd said the charter school will drop plans to bring back a geographic enrollment preference for the 2020-21 school year. But the letter strongly denies claims made by the Los Altos School District (LASD) Board of Trustees last month that the preference was part of a larger attempt to avoid admitting low-income and special needs students.
Hurd called the allegations baseless and incendiary, and that the district's allegations of systematic discrimination and segregation are "particularly offensive" and not reflected in demographic data.
"LASD repeatedly and wrongfully accuses BCS of discrimination hoping that if the district repeats the false contention enough, people will believe it's true," Hurd wrote. "But it's not true. For years LASD has blurted out similar unsupported accusations, yet more and more LASD families continue to enroll their children at BCS with demographics consistent with what we see district-wide."
The letter comes one month after LASD's board signed a letter of its own, accusing the charter school of discrimination by enrolling a disproportionately low number of low-income students and students with disabilities. The letter requested that the county block the charter school from reinstating an enrollment preference that could worsen the disparity.
Bullis Charter School previously gave priority enrollment to incoming kindergartners residing in the so-called Bullis-Purissima Elementary School boundary, which encompasses parts of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills and is widely regarded to be more affluent than other parts of the district, particularly the San Antonio neighborhood of Mountain View. The preference was phased out during a facilities agreement with the school district that expired this year, but charter school leaders announced in June it was slated for return in the 2020-21 school year.
Los Altos trustees also used the letter as an opportunity to slam the county office of education for failing to do its job as oversight agency for Bullis Charter School, arguing that the school was given carte blanche to under-serve the neediest students in the district.
The county responded with a strongly worded letter of its own, defending its record of oversight and excoriating the district for what it called misleading statements and an overly aggressive tone. The Oct. 2 letter, signed by county Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan, criticized the district for focusing on a "spurious" argument that the charter school's very existence in a high-performing district runs contrary to the intent of California's charter school laws, which placed special emphasis on the needs of students with low academic achievement.
"The letter selectively describes only a single component of the purposes of (charter schools) in what appears to be an effort at misdirection and publicly undermining BCS as part of LASD and BCS's regrettably contentious ongoing relationship and disagreements involving the broader community," Dewan said in the letter.
However, Dewan wrote that the letter should "in no way be interpreted as either a lessening of the county's concern regarding the fundamental allegations of discrimination." The letter goes on to request evidence and documentation that could prove Los Altos School District's case -- that a series of actions, ranging from enrollment priorities and practices to a lack of transparency in managing the admissions lottery, amounts to discriminatory practices.
The letter requests the information by Oct. 23, and the district is working on a response, board president Jessica Speiser confirmed with the Voice Friday. The district is planning to request an extended deadline past the Oct. 28th school board meeting.
The county took an even-handed approach, sending a separate letter to Bullis Charter School on Oct. 2 raising concerns about the allegations made by the school district. Dewan didn't mince words, telling the charter school that the county was concerned that adding an enrollment preference for kids in the Bullis-Purissima boundaries will "run afoul" with laws prohibiting charter school from limiting enrollment access for underserved students, including students with disabilities, English learners, low-income and homeless students.
"Based on information currently available to the county, at a minimum, the former Bullis-Purissima Elementary School attendance area appears to house a disproportionately low number of socio-economically disadvantaged students," the letter states. "So the use of this preferences appears likely to 'limit enrollment access.'"
Dewan gave Bullis Charter School one of two options: drop the enrollment preference or give a thorough explanation for why the preference doesn't violate state law. The letter requested an answer by Oct. 12, one day after Hurd's letter to the county announcing the charter school was no longer pursuing the admissions preference.
Hurd, in his response, stated that Bullis Charter School runs a fair, public and random enrollment lottery and does not ask for information on student disabilities or economic status prior to admission. He wrote that demographic disparities between the charter school and the school district are not a violation of law so long as Bullis continues to offer the same opportunities to all families.
What's more, he said the charter school conducts "extra outreach" for special education students as well as postcards, news advertisements and flyers specifically targeted to families residing in the San Antonio area of Mountain View.
Hurd's letter includes graphs and data showing that about 1.6% of the school's enrollment is designated as low-income compared to 6.2% across Los Altos School District -- a delta he called "relatively minimal," particularly when compared to the rest of the county. Some of the district's own schools, including Gardner Bullis Elementary and Blach Junior High, have similarly low percentages of low-income students.
Bullis Charter School enrolls students from across the district, whereas neighborhood school have enrollment boundaries largely determined by geography.
Hurd alleges that the real discrimination is carried out by the school district, which has systemically under-served charter school students with inadequate school facilities for years. He said the school has forced students into "cramped, unequal conditions" in classrooms that are split between two campuses, violating guarantees to equitable facilities under the state's Proposition 39 law.
"LASD admits that one in five students who reside within the district attends BCS," Hurd said in the letter. "And yet, LASD has never provided BCS children with equivalent school facilities they are entitled to under the law. Instead, LASD forced BCS into temporary 'bungalow' type classrooms on split campuses."
The Los Altos School District revealed a long-term facilities plan earlier this year that would remedy the long-standing disputes over school facilities, but tabled it after a firestorm of opposition from parents and community members. The deal would have ceded the existing Egan Junior High School campus to the charter school in exchange for an enrollment cap of about 1,100 students, and would shift Egan students to a yet-to-be-built campus at the corner of Showers Drive and California Street in Mountain View.