The Sept. 20 board meeting served largely as a crash course in California charter school law, following surprising news earlier that Bullis Charter School officials plan to submit a petition to open a new campus in the district next fall. The new charter school is expected to serve 320 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. Enrollment would be tuition-free, with a preference given to children in the Mountain View Whisman district who qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Bullis administrator Jennifer Anderson-Rosse, who is spearheading the application process, told board members that she hopes the board will authorize the charter once it's submitted, and that there will be a "collaborative" relationship with the district in the future. Early outreach by Bullis staffers found that families are likely to give the new charter school a warm reception, she said.
"We are doing this because we feel confident that the parents residing in this school district want this school, as evidenced by the popular support and interest in this community," she said.
But does the district really have much of a choice? Under California's existing charter school law, the cards are indisputably stacked in favor of Bullis Charter School, said David Huff, an attorney hired by the district who spoke at the meeting. He said charter school law is still in its infancy and many components of it have been challenged in court, but the overarching theme is that the petition process — along with requirements for districts to provide "reasonably equivalent" facilities under Proposition 39 — show a bias in favor of charter schools.
"This body of law, as well as Proposition 39, are weighted to the charter schools," Huff said. "They were drafted by charter school advocates and passed in a way that, while they certainly have checks and balances that give the school district some power in this process, the law is favored for the benefit of the charter schools."
Under the state's education code, the district has to move at breakneck speed to respond to the charter request, holding a public hearing within 30 days of receiving the petition and either granting or denying the petition within 60 days. The petition has more than a dozen components, and must include a clear plan for the academic model of the school, proof of teacher and parent interest, and a sound financial plan for keeping the school afloat.
While school districts are asked to consider the level of support from teachers, employees and parents during the review period, there's really no teeth to it. Public sentiment is not a valid criteria for denial, Huff said.
"It doesn't really have any meaning at all, and it's unfortunate, frankly," he said. "Even though you're required to consider the level of your community support, the statute doesn't allow you to use that for one of your bases to reject the petition."
Earlier in the meeting, Mountain View Educators Association president Sean Dechter urged trustees not to support the charter petition when it comes before them, stating that it would hurt the district's schools financially and lower enrollment — potentially eliminating teaching positions in the district. He also cautioned the district about potential legal battles, pointing to the history of litigation between Bullis and the Los Altos School District, where it operates a K-8 school.
If the school board decides to deny the charter petition, Bullis has other options. It could instead seek a charter with the county, similar to the arrangement between the existing Bullis Charter School in Los Altos and Santa Clara County's Office of Education. If that fails, Bullis has a third option to go before the California State Board of Education. All three options could land a school within the district's boundaries and put the onus on Mountain View Whisman to provide facilities.
Striking out does occasionally happen, as was the case earlier this month with a proposal put forward by Rocketship Public Schools to open a school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Concerns raised by the Contra Costa County Board of Education included declines in charter school enrollment, questionable staffing proposals and little knowledge of the local education landscape in the East Bay. At least one of those aspects — the enrollment drops — is unlikely to be a factor in Bullis' application.
Huff didn't mince words explaining the situation: There has been a "very active" effort by charter school advocates to endorse and support candidates throughout the state who support the charter school movement, creating a situation where a charter school petition is likely to get approved by one of the three public agencies. By denying the charter, he said, the district would run the risk of losing the oversight role as the chartering agency, and wouldn't be in a good position to inform the community about the charter school's operation in the district.
"In general, most school districts that reject a charter school petition, that is thereafter approved by another authorizer — either the county or the state — end up regretting that decision," he said. "Losing that oversight responsibility is often times determined to be, in hindsight, something they wish they didn't do."
After the meeting, Anderson-Rosse told the Voice that "every district is different," and that she is confident the new school being proposed in the Mountain View Whisman School District will satisfy a need in the district rather than hinder district-run schools or displace teachers. Not only could the new school act as a much-needed release valve for the sizable enrollment increases projected in the coming years, but it could also serve the roughly 200 families in Mountain View currently on the waiting list to get into Bullis Charter School in Los Altos.
The charter school has held a half-dozen community outreach events over the last month informing Mountain View parents of the upcoming charter petition and soliciting feedback. The plan is to start small for the 2019-20 school year, with 168 students in kindergarten through second grade.
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