The Santa Clara County Board of Education voted 6-1 Wednesday to reprimand Bullis Charter School for what it describes as a chronic failure to enroll enough low-income students, Latino students and children with disabilities.
The move will compel the charter school, located in the Los Altos School District, to come up with a plan to adjust its lopsided enrollment to better match the demographics of the district. If the so-called corrective action plan does not work, the county board could choose not to renew Bullis' charter to continue after June next year -- a serious decision that could lead to the closure of the school.
The lopsided enrollment at Bullis Charter School has been a concern for years, flagged as a "continued challenge" by county staff during the charter school's renewal back in 2016. Charter school officials at the time said it had been a struggle to recruit more underserved students and insisted that they were taking action to correct the imbalance. The county board renewed the charter through June 2022 on a 5-0 vote.
But five years later, county education officials say the problem has not been resolved and has gotten even worse. The latest round of enrollment data reportedly shows English language learners, Hispanics, low-income students and students with disabilities all remain underrepresented at the school, raising questions over whether the publicly funded school is serving an exclusive population of wealthy families in the district.
"BCS's enrollment data, as well as the data provided by BCS about the results of its open enrollment process for the 2021-2022 school year, continue to indicate that BCS is not serving all pupils who wish to attend," according to the county report. "The demographic data indicate that the percentage of BCS's enrollment of some pupil groups has actually decreased, rather than increased."
The Los Altos School District for years has pushed the county to take action on the skewed enrollment at Bullis, penning a scathing letter to the county in 2019 accusing the charter school of discriminatory enrollment practices that seek to serve the wealthiest and least needy families in the district. It later blasted the county office of education for failing to hold Bullis accountable for its demographic imbalance.
At the Wednesday meeting, Los Altos school board president Shali Sirkay said that the formal reprimand is a "critical step in the right direction," and that the district has long urged Bullis Charter School to enroll a more diverse student population reflective of the Los Altos School District -- from which it draws the vast majority of its students. But as the charter school has grown to roughly 1,100 children in recent years, its diversity has not improved.
"The staggering inequity in their enrollment becomes truly intolerable, and of a magnitude that we cannot ignore," Sirkay said. "I personally find it inconceivable and irresponsible that an organization receiving pubic funds can continue practices that have only proven to sustain and exacerbate this exclusivity."
Largely absent from the meeting was the troubling data in question. Though county staff said the school has not enrolled enough underserved students relative to the demographics of the Los Altos School District, none of those figures were available at the Wednesday meeting. In the past, state data has shown that 1.6% of students at the charter school are identified as low-income, compared to 6.2% across the district. Bullis board members have previously described the difference as "relatively minimal."
Thomas Yih, a parent and board member of Bullis Charter School, pushed back against the county's allegations and called it "troubling" that the county has dangled the possibility of nixing the charter altogether over the issue. He said county staff is claiming without evidence that Bullis has enrolled even fewer needy students in recent years when, in fact, those enrollment levels have either been steady or increased. Absent "factual evidence" that Bullis is violating the law, Yih warned that the county is tainting what should be a fair renewal process and running afoul of the charter school's right to due process.
Bullis, which has been chartered through the county since 2003, has been immensely popular. The school has reported receiving 10 applicants for every available kindergarten spot, prompting an enrollment lottery that gives preference to families residing in the Los Altos School District. Past allegations by school district officials claim that while the lottery itself may be fair, the recruitment efforts are not even-handed and tend to skew toward wealthier families.
Los Altos school board members raised alarms in 2019 that the charter school may be bringing back its so-called "hills" preference (referring to Los Altos Hills), which would give families living in the former boundaries of the Bullis-Purissima Elementary School an advantage when applying to send their children to the school. County Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan sent a letter to Bullis at the time stating that such a preference could potentially violate laws prohibiting charter schools from limiting enrollment access to underserved students, including those with disabilities, English learners, low-income and homeless students. The preference was dropped and permanently discarded last year.
County board members were quick to say that their action Wednesday does not condemn Bullis Charter School or set in motion the nonrenewal of its charter, but instead gets the ball rolling on correcting the demographic inequities at the school. Board member Peter Ortiz said the school is obligated to serve the demographics of the school district, including low-income families, and that they are taking the necessary steps to exercise oversight of the school.
"The point of this letter, to our understanding, is not to cast a final judgment on Bullis Charter School, but to inform them there are inclusivity issues we are watching very closely and that we want them to rectify," Ortiz said. "We cannot stand idle when we're having these concerns raised."
Board members Grace Mah and Joseph Di Salvo both generally agreed to send Bullis a notice of violation, but questioned why the underlying demographic data prompting the action was not available prior to the vote. Di Salvo, the lone vote in opposition, said he couldn't support the notion on such nebulous terms, but that he fully plans to hold Bullis accountable.
"I will not be able to vote for renewal unless Bullis has a population that serves lots more underserved kids than they currently serve," Di Salvo said.
Charter schools became a central issue in the county school board election last year, with Mah receiving significant campaign support from pro-charter school organizations. The challenger, Melissa Baten Caswell, received large donations from vocal critics of Bullis Charter School.
Though Mah was perceived during the election as more favorable to charter schools and has a track record for approving charters, she was absent during the vote to approve Bullis' charter renewal in 2016 and voted against the renewal in 2011.
Critics of Bullis Charter School rallied behind Baten Caswell during the election following a controversial proposal by the Los Altos School District board to offer the Egan campus to the charter school. Parents attending heated school board meetings at the time suggested that changes in state law and new leadership on the Santa Clara County Board of Education could most effectively hold Bullis accountable.
With the board's approval May 5, county education officials will send a letter to Bullis listing the violations and giving the charter school a "reasonable opportunity" to fix the problems with an action plan submitted to the county. The aim is to give Bullis the letter and provide the school with enough time to correct its demographic problems prior to the critical vote on whether to renew Bullis' charter.