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Parent group files legal brief in schools' case


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A group of local parents and community members who last month formed an alliance to protect and promote their neighborhood public schools has entered the fray between the Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School.

The Huttlinger Alliance for Education – created by district parents and supported by several other community members – last week filed papers in the most recent court case pitting the district against the charter school.

In a brief submitted to the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara, the alliance argued that the court should reject Bullis’ pending motion to compel the district to turn over currently used school facilities to the charter school.

The alliance also filed an amicus curiae (friend of the courts) “to address important public policy questions about who is entitled to claim rights to public school facilities,” according to Elena Shea, president of the alliance, which includes residents of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View.

“The alliance agrees with LASD that the court should deny Bullis Charter School’s motion,” Shea said. “However, we don’t think the district has done everything it should to protect the interests of all students, in particular those who are entitled to special consideration, including special-needs kids, English-language learners and low-income children who have not always had access to quality educational opportunities.”

Earlier this year, charter school and district board representatives entered settlement discussions supervised by a retired judge. Those discussions led to the announcement in early May of a tentative plan to offer Bullis significant portions of Egan Junior High School for the 2012-2013 school year. The tentative plan also would have closed an existing district school and allocated it to the charter school no later than the 2013-2014 school year. Parents informed of the tentative plan in meetings during May and June voiced strong objections to yielding to the charter school’s requests.

Parent concerns about alleged improper practices by the charter school’s leadership came to a head after Bullis filed its latest motion. The district’s opposition papers included several sworn statements by parents recounting how the charter school failed to accommodate their children with special needs, and actively encouraged other parents to withdraw special-needs children from the charter school.

In addition, the district presented evidence that certain loans to Bullis Charter School’s principal may violate California law.

Separately, a number of other parents provided sworn statements including additional alleged accounts of the charter school’s failure to accept special-needs students in a nondiscriminatory manner, as public schools are required under state and federal law.

The alliance also submitted evidence alleging that parents are led to believe Bullis’ $5,000 per-student “donation” is a mandatory tuition payment – again, an improper practice for public schools.

“Given these practices, we believe there’s good reason to question BCS’ right to be considered a ‘public’ school. At the very least, these new facts should cause our community to take a hard look at BCS,” said alliance board member Joe Seither. “We think LASD went too far in the past few months to placate BCS in an effort to end the litigation, and we want to bring everyone back to a middle ground.”

More than 200 Los Altos School District community members signed statements supporting the alliance’s arguments.

“Our bottom line is that the court should not intervene to allocate district facilities,” said alliance board member and local attorney Noah Mesel. “BCS students deserve no preference over real public school students, whose rights to facilities must be part of the equation.”

Representatives said the alliance would endorse a solution that ends litigation and avoids the annual Proposition 39 facilities’ allocation process as long as that solution is equitable to all district students.

According to alliance members, the effect of granting the charter school’s request for additional classrooms, specialized instruction and outdoor space at Egan for the 2012-2013 year and an entire campus in 2013 would leverage charter law beyond anything provided in the Education Code or anywhere else in California law.

Los Altos School District board Trustee Doug Smith said the alliance adds a new perspective to the legal action.

“I think the alliance is interesting in that they bring a very personalized face to the conversation,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with everything they have said in their documents, but it will give the court understanding of the type of tradeoff we have to make.”

Smith added that the group articulates to the court why the district can’t keep giving more space to the charter school.

“We have heard their statements many times at public meetings and this is an opportunity for the court to hear that as well,” he said.

John Phelps, charter school board member, said he was shocked at the energy expended by charter school opponents.

“Imagine if that energy were put into the kids,” he said. “My plea is that we focus on the kids and not the courts, and that we respect the law. Many communities are embracing charter schools – it’s time this one did as well.”

If the court allows the alliance to argue the points raised in its brief, Audra Ibarra, a local attorney and former Assistant U.S. Attorney, will represent the group at a hearing scheduled Aug. 15.

The Huttlinger Alliance for Education – a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization based in Los Altos – is named after Ernst Huttlinger (1893-1982). A contemporary of Los Altos founder Paul Shoup, Huttlinger led the lawsuit to stop the closure and sale of Covington School in the 1970s.

Online Extra

The Association of California School Administrators also filed an amicus brief in support of the district. For more details, visit www.losaltosonline.com.

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