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Charter fuels debate

The Los Altos School District's rejection of the Bullis Charter School petition last week marked not the end but the first step in a process that could take several months before the state board of education decides the matter.

Supporters of the charter school effort -- coming after Los Altos trustees voted to close Bullis-Purissima School in February -- vowed to press on last week, taking their cause to the Santa Clara County Board of Education.

"We can now move quickly and enthusiastically toward securing our charter from the county or state," said Craig Jones, Bullis Charter School president. "Our goal remains the same -- to open a small, high-performing public neighborhood school that supports our children and builds a stronger Los Altos Hills."

The issue has proved both emotional and divisive. District supporters see the charter formation as a financial drain on the remaining five elementary schools. The district is closing Bullis in expectation of severe state budget cuts.

A charter school receives the same state money as a public school -- in this case, $5,400 per pupil -- but supporters, within reasonable guidelines, can dictate the educational program. District officials see this as money lost, although the law disallows them from using lost funding as a reason to deny a charter. Still, it remains obvious that the district's teachers union and many parents oppose the charter for this reason.

Charter supporters, mostly Bullis-Purissima parents, say the district would otherwise lose these students, approximately 200-300, to private schools, but a charter allows an opportunity for Los Altos Hills children to continue attending a public school in their own community. They also contend Bullis would get none of the parcel tax money as a charter school, which they claim amounts to another $1,800 per pupil for the other five schools.

That said, the reasons trustees and Superintendent Marge Gratiot gave for denying the charter petition amount to their assertion that the charter supporters don't have their educational act together.

The five-member board voted unanimously against the charter at its May 5 meeting after Gratiot detailed written findings for denying the charter, as required by law.

The district asked the following three questions as a basis for denying the charter: Are the petitioners likely to successfully implement the program? Does the petition demonstrate compliance with the required affirmations in the Education Code? Does the petition contain reasonably comprehensive descriptions of the required elements of a charter petition? District officials concluded the answer to each question was no.

The board's findings

Among the district's findings, officials cited the petition's lack of program focus, lack of sufficient planning time, lack of familiarity with legal requirements, unrealistic financial and operational plan, lack of necessary expertise and lack of a viable facilities plan.

According to Gratiot and the board, the petition does not contain, among other elements, adequate descriptions of the school's educational program; measurable pupil progress and outcomes; the governance structure of the school, including the process to ensure parental involvement; health and safety procedures; qualifications for employees; and auditing parameters and contingencies.

"I studied the charter application looking for educational differentiation that would stand out in support of the charter -- differentiation that would support the district's goal to educate each child to their fullest potential," board member Jay Thomas said. "I was disappointed to see there was no educational differentiation," he said, noting that the charter petition was a copy of the LASD educational program.

Board member Margot Harrigan was in favor of keeping a school at the Bullis site at the beginning of the charter school discussion, but ultimately found it implausible.

"I might have answered 'maybe' as to whether I believe that the charter school could be successful. I think that they (could) have, if given much more time for planning and proper budgeting and ongoing financing," Harrigan said. "However, the educational program the charter presented, and certainly the budget, does not provide me with any confidence of success."

Bullis-Purrisima School

Driving the charter effort is the fact that Bullis-Purrisima School is the only K-6 public school left in Los Altos Hills. When some Bullis-Purissima School parents learned that the Los Altos School District was closing the elementary school in Los Altos Hills starting with the 2003-04 school year, they began looking to save their school by turning to the charter option.

Bullis students are scheduled to be transferred to a newly reopened Covington School in September, but charter supporters don't like the idea of their children traveling in heavy morning traffic across Foothill Expressway from Los Altos Hills to Los Altos.

A charter school is an independent public school supported by public funds and held accountable by public authority. Charter schools have a "charter," or written legal agreement, with a sponsoring agency, which is usually a school district.

If, after appeal, the charter school is approved, its founding members hope the school will be able to stay at the Bullis site.

"Los Altos Hills has something to offer education. We believe that the Bullis Charter School based in LAH would provide a great educational product," charter president Jones said. "We believe that a smaller school, with smaller class sizes, makes for better education."

In a districtwide letter sent home to parents last week, the board stated, "The primary reason for the (charter school) petition is to maintain a public school in Los Altos Hills (the Bullis site seems to be the only viable location), and far outweighs any educational considerations contained in the charter document."

The charter petitioners would like their school to remain at the Bullis-Purissima location on Fremont Road. The district is targeting the closed school for rental income, but the charter school recently offered the district $150,000 to rent Bullis for the 2003-04 school year. District officials have yet to decide who will occupy the Bullis site next year.

"The Los Altos Hills location, in a rural setting in a town with a rich heritage of open space and trails, provides a great place to educate young children," Jones said. "We believe that this setting will give us a chance to emphasize local field trips to places such as Hidden Villa, Westwind Barn and Byrne Preserve and to teach environmental citizenship."

According to the district, there are provisions in the Charter School Act of 1992 for reopening a closed school, known as a "conversion" charter school. The option of opening a conversion charter school is available only if petitioners gather signatures from at least 50 percent of the teachers from the closed school.

"In the petition submitted to the district in March, there were no signatures on the petition from any Bullis teacher, nor from any active teacher in the entire district," Gratiot said. "Thus, the site-specific nature of the petition is not supported by the charter law and that site would not have to be provided by the district, even if the charter was approved."

What's next

"We fully expected that staff would recommend turning down the charter," Jones said. "We will, of course, appeal, first to the Santa Clara County Board of Education and then to the California State Board of Education."

Just as the charter school proponents expected the board to deny its petition, the board expected the charter school to appeal its decision.

"From the district's point of view, the process is complete, although it is likely that the petitioners will appeal our decision," stated the district letter. "We cannot predict the outcome of the appeal process, but it is our opinion that the county or the state would be hard pressed to overturn our decision based on their parallel evaluation of the identical document that we evaluated."

The appeal process for a charter school petition is written out in the education code and follows very specific guidelines.

"A petition comes to us for a review to see if the school board followed procedure, and we have an extensive review of the application. We share that recommendation with our board, and we have 30 days to review it and another 30 days to have a public hearing," said Bonnie Plummer, assistant superintendent for instructional services at the Santa Clara County Office of Education. "We haven't had any appeals yet. Most appeals have been taken back to the local board, so they have not come here on appeal."

The Santa Clara County Board of Education also has to hold a public hearing and present written factual findings about the charter petition and its legal and financial soundness, when denying or approving the charter.

"They keep changing the rules. The most changes in education code in the last three years have been with charter schools," Plummer said. "The reason is, while we hope everyone who applies for a charter school has the best interests of the children, there has been no monitoring process. So we put in new education codes to make sure charter schools remain a very viable education system."

If the charter is denied at the county level, petitioners have 180 days from that denial to appeal to the state board of education.

Petitioners have to give the state board not only their application, but also a copy of the county's denial and reasons for denial, according to the California State Board of Education.

Just as in the district and county processes, the state board has a 90-day period to review the petition and have a public hearing.

"Our findings and analysis on the petition then go to the Advisory Commission on Charter Schools, a commission set up by the state board of education, which recommends approval or denial of the petition to the state board," said Deborah Connelly, an education programs consultant with the state department of education. "The state board has really only been approving appeals over the last two years because of a change in the charter school law. It's a relatively new and evolving process."

The state board has approved seven charter schools within the last two years.

"The state board has approved about 60 percent of all charters that have come before it," Connelly said.

For more information, logon to the Los Altos School District Web site at www.losaltos.k12.ca.us; the Bullis Charter School Web site at www.bullischarterschool.com; the Santa Clara County Office of Education Web site at www.sccoe.org; and the California State Board of Education Web site at www.cde.ca.gov.

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