The Los Altos School District fired off a letter to county education officials last week citing data and parent statements alleging that Bullis Charter School has a long history of deterring low-income and special needs students from enrolling.
The 41-page letter is the latest in a three-way dispute between the school district, the charter school and the Santa Clara County Office of Education over whether Bullis' skewed enrollment demographics are the result of a conscious effort to discourage families of underserved students from seeking admission.
Bullis Charter School leaders sharply dispute the claim, stating the school is open to all who apply and that its resulting demographics aren't that different from several district-run schools. Bullis Board Chair Joe Hurd said the letter is full of old allegations, anti-charter school rhetoric and "erroneous, hysterical charges" against Bullis.
"It is disappointing and frustrating to see the Los Altos School District working overtime to mislead our community and depict BCS as anything other than what it is: a great educational option for all students in the district," Hurd said.
The letter cites data showing that only 1.6% of students enrolled in Bullis Charter School are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, a metric used to gauge the number of low-income students, compared to 6.2% across district schools. The charter school also enrolls fewer English learners and children with disabilities including autism, orthopedic impairments, intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbances.
School district trustees say the rates are a concern because Bullis Charter School draws students from all over the district and, on paper, should have a student body that roughly reflect the demographics of the area. The data alone demonstrates a "disparate impact that must be corrected," according to the letter.
But graphs alone weren't enough to convince the county's leadership of a problem, at least not right away. In an Oct. 2 letter to the district, County Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan wrote that the district's claims need to be backed up with "any and all evidence and documentation" showing a clear pattern of discrimination before the office of education will take any action. The county requested the evidence by Oct. 23, but the district requested an extension before sending a response on Oct. 30.
Discouraging request for donations
The discrimination alleged in the letter is largely bifurcated. The first is that low-income families are not effectively advertised to during open enrollment, which could explain why so few of the district's hundreds of low-income students end up at Bullis Charter School.
Trustees wrote in the letter that hand-out FAQs advertising the school state that families are asked to donate $5,000 per student per year towards Bullis Charter School's annual fundraising campaign. Prominently displaying the request for money "serves to discourage" low-income families.
"Many families residing within the boundaries of LASD are living at the edge of their means in order to ensure their child gets a top-notch education. These same families often qualify for free or reduced lunch," the letter states. "Needless to say, a $5,000 donation expectation is definitely a deterrent to applying in the first place."
Charter school officials have made clear that $5,000 donations are not a requirement and should not be confused with tuition, though it does remain an essential funding stream to keep Bullis Charter School financially solvent. More than one-third of the school's budget, or about $3.7 million, comes from grants and contributions each year, according to the school's 2017 tax documents. The school would be fiscally unsound without the money, county staff found during Bullis' charter renewal in 2016.
The letter also cites problems with Bullis Charter School's international field trips to places like China, London, Costa Rica and Washington, D.C., which are expected to be paid for by the families, according to the letter. Hurd contends that the claim is misleading, however: Those trips are neither compulsory nor considered part of the curriculum, and students may opt out.
The second and more serious set of claims in the letter suggest that families with students who have special needs, or Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), are actively discouraged from enrolling in Bullis by charter school staff -- from early information nights all the way to the start of the school year.
The Los Altos School District provided a letter from a parent whose name was withheld, sent in April this year, describing how charter school staff attempted to dissuade her from signing her child up for Bullis Charter School. She recounted how she went to the charter school's campus to pick up a registration packet in 2011 and told the administrative staff that her child had a disability that required a speech pathologist. She said she was told that the charter school does not provide a speech pathologist and that her child "needs" to be enrolled in a district-run school for those services.
Even if she paid for a private speech pathologist, the charter school staffer said that Bullis would be the wrong choice because the teacher would be unable to understand the student's speech. The employee then declined to give her a registration packet, according to the letter.
Another letter, sent to the board last month by parent Alison Biggs, states that Bullis Charter School persuaded her not to even consider enrolling at Bullis Charter School because of her child's IEP, and that she heard the charter school required parents to disclose a child's IEP status on the enrollment application as recently as 2012.
School board president Jessica Speiser also described in the letter that, up to at least 2017, she had heard firsthand from a parent about difficulties receiving services for a dyslexic child at Bullis Charter School.
The letter comes with two declarations from parents submitted during a prior legal battle in 2012 over alleged discrimination, which trustees admit are dated but nevertheless say represent a pattern of "BCS misbehavior" that leads to fewer high-needs students ending up enrolled at Bullis Charter School.
"Only clear and firm corrective action by the county can reverse the cumulative and corrosive effect of 15 plus years of 'skimming,'" according to the letter.
Hurd told the Voice that the charter school does provide special education services through an arrangement with the Santa Clara County Office of Education, which has provided speech, occupational therapy and resource specialist services for Bullis Charter School for more than a decade. The school does not have a Special Day class for students who don't do well in mainstream classrooms, but does work with the county to provide placement and services for those students in the least restrictive environment.
Priority for low-income kids?
The relatively low number of low-income students in Bullis Charter School has long been on the radar of the Santa Clara County Office of Education, which oversees the school's operations and is responsible for renewing its charter. But the agency has, up until now, taken a hands-off approach.
During the most recent charter renewal in 2016, county staff noted that Bullis Charter School's administrators have been forthcoming and willing to talk about revising admissions preferences to prioritize students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals. The charter school's superintendent at the time, Wanny Hersey, said she was working with county staff on how to best address the concerns over demographics.
What the conversation actually meant depends on who you ask. The Los Altos School District letter states that the charter school's leadership agreed to come up with some type of enrollment preference for low-income students that never materialized. Hurd said he believes that meant the charter school would look into potential discrepancies in demographics between Bullis and district-run schools. He points out that other Los Altos district-run schools, including Gardner Bullis and Oak elementaries, have roughly the same percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price meals as Bullis Charter.
In the years that followed, parents and staff from the charter school began working on an effort to create a second Bullis Charter School designed to serve low-income and minority students. The effort culminated last year when Bullis Mountain View, a newly formed nonprofit, submitted a charter petition to open a school in the Mountain View Whisman School District. The charter was begrudgingly approved but was later revoked after a months-long feud over district-imposed requirements on student demographics and testing.
To leaders of the Los Altos School District, Bullis Mountain View was an effort to open an entirely different school to serve needy students in lieu of diversifying its flagship campus in Los Altos.
"BCS's practices favor a separate school for free and reduced (priced meals) students over allowing those same protected class students in the district they already operate in to enjoy the equal benefits of the original BCS," according to the letter.
Since the initial allegations lodged by the school district against Bullis Charter School in September, county staff been unavailable or unwilling to be interviewed by the Voice despite multiple requests. County Superintendent Dewan declined to comment about the most recent Oct. 30 letter.
The back-and-forth over the alleged discriminatory practices comes right as Bullis Charter School is beginning its open enrollment process for the 2020-21 school year, which runs through Jan. 10 next year. More than 1,000 students apply to the school each year -- far exceeding the available space -- which Hurd says shows high interest despite "bad faith arguments and harmful rhetoric" from the district.
Bullis Charter School had originally intended to bring back an enrollment preference for the 2020-21 school year that would give higher priority to incoming kindergartners residing in the so-called Bullis-Purissima Elementary School boundary, which is widely regarded to be more affluent than other parts of the district. Dewan wrote in an Oct. 2 letter to the charter school that county officials are concerned such a preference could run afoul with laws prohibiting charter schools from limiting enrollment access for underserved students.
The charter school later announced it was dropping plans to bring back the enrollment preference, but the Los Altos School District trustees say they are still not convinced it's gone for good. In its Oct. 30 letter, the board called on the county to take additional measures to ensure the the preference is "permanently suspended" and for all grade levels.