Tue04152014

News

Charter school suggests mediation

Bullis Charter School invited the Los Altos School District Monday to enter an interest-based mediation to seek a multiyear facilities solution, using a mediator selected jointly by district trustees and charter school board members.

“Now that the courts have clarified the district’s obligations under Proposition 39, we hope to enter a new, more constructive phase in our relationship,” said charter school Board Chairman Ken Moore in a letter to the district.

Interest-based mediation focuses on the needs of the parties and encourages a broader range of solutions or resolutions to address the underlying interests of the parties rather than their legal rights exclusively. Moore’s letter stated the mediation process would be completed by March 30, before the deadline for the district’s final facilities offer for the 2012-2013 school year.

As of the Town Crier’s press deadline, school district officials had yet to respond to the charter school’s offer.

Negotiations between the Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School hit a snag last week after the two parties disagreed over how much information from their meetings the public should be privy to. The charter school’s new proposal does not clarify the level of transparency the process would entail.

District Trustee Doug Smith said the district and the charter school were prepared to reach an agreement on the terms of the meetings last week – which would be safe from the threat of future lawsuits – until they began to discuss what information should be released to the public.

“We have not yet reached a final agreement,” he said before the new proposal was on the table. “The final sticking point is around confidentiality. It goes against my theory of how this board should operate to enter into any public agreement that I need to exclude information.”

The mediation proposal did not make clear who would represent each entity. Moore said both full boards could participate or representatives from each. The mediator, when selected, would have input on the format as well, he added.

The district and the charter school have been at odds for years, with ongoing litigation culminating last month. The California Supreme Court Jan. 18 denied the district’s request to review an appellate-court ruling that backed the charter school’s contention that the district failed to meet its obligation to provide adequate facilities.

Proposition 39, passed in 2000, mandates that school districts offer “reasonably equivalent” space for charter school students who reside within district boundaries. The school district currently allots the charter school space at Egan Junior High School.

Before the mediation proposal, Smith said charter school representatives wanted to include language in an agreement that would bind the district to communicate with the public solely via joint announcements.

“They have tried to include a provision that the only way things get communicated is by mutual agreement,” he said. “I don’t want to enter into an agreement that (states) we are beholden to an unelected body to communicate to the community that elected us.”

Bullis Charter School board member John Phelps said the two sides should communicate their progress through joint statements.

“We will probably come to wording that has joint statements issued, so we don’t have one side or the other’s (communication misinterpreted by) third parties – harming the frankness and productivity of the talks,” he said.

Smith, however, expressed concern with issuing such statements.

“If we accept language into the precursor document that it is only by mutual agreement that you communicate out of it, how do you exit that?” he asked. “How will the community know, if you can’t publicly talk about it, that you have at least been trying to make progress?”

District Trustee Mark Goines said he has a history of participating in nonproductive discussions with the charter school and suggested a limit to how long the negotiations would last. He added that because the district must submit its final offer for the charter school’s facilities for 2012-2013 by April 1, there should be an open report out of the negotiations by then.

“I think you need to look for a degree of freedom that will help us get something substantive by April 1,” Goines said. “If we don’t have something by April 1, then we need to do something to change the process.”

Smith said that if the two parties cannot agree, he is prepared to proceed with crafting a long-term proposal for the general public.

Phelps said the two groups last week continued to draft guidelines that both sides could agree on.

“We are in regular communication informally to solve this, and I’m confident that we will,” he said. “There is a very strong will on our part to reach out and engage in constructive dialogue.”

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