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Schools

Bullis Charter School attempt becomes divisive issue

Three words have come to represent a major division in the Los Altos School District -- Bullis Charter School.

Since the district's acceptance of the school's charter March 17, district parents and community members have organized to voice opposition to the school's formation.

A charter school is an independent public school, supported by public funds and held accountable by a public authority, which is usually a school district.

Some Bullis-Purissima parents have been working to start a charter school since the district's Feb. 10 decision to close the K-6 school in Los Altos Hills, beginning with the 2003-04 school year.

The district has a strict time line to follow to either accept or deny the Bullis School charter as submitted to the district March 12. The district has 30 days from that date to hold a public hearing and 60 days from that date to make its decision.

The proposal first must be approved by 50 percent of Bullis parents or teachers, then by the district or the California Board of Education.

A public hearing was scheduled March 31, after the Town Crier deadline. Look for an update in our April 9 issue.

The purpose of the public hearing was for the charter school to present its charter to the public and for the opportunity for the public to comment.

While a public comment session is required by law, the law also states that a board or school district cannot take public comments into consideration while making a decision on whether or not to grant a charter.

The opposition group has circulated a petition of signatures against the charter school, which cannot have any bearing on the board's decision.

"There is an anti-charter movement and a petition which has no legal standing," said Craig Jones of Bullis Charter School. "The charter school effort is not a popularity contest, but a procedure laid out in detail in the education code."

Brian Lillie, a district parent and member of the opposition group, said one of the main areas of concern regarding Bullis Charter School is financial impact on the district.

According to Randy Kenyon, associate superintendent of business services, if 150 students attended the charter school, it would cost the district $240,000 for the first year in per student funding from the state; and $480,000 in per student funding would be lost if 300 students attended the charter.

Jones said that by having a charter school of at least 200 students in the district, the per student funding actually increases by $100 per student.

"Now $7.2 million of funding comes through parcel tax, and that money doesn't leave with a student," Jones said. "The parcel tax funds stay in the public schools, with fewer students needing it, which increases the per student funding."

The opposition group states that the savings of up to $600,000 that the district would gain by closing Bullis would be compromised with the opening of the charter school, which could result in larger class sizes, loss of electives in the junior high schools and the closure of another elementary school.

"The ultimate cost of this selfish pursuit is unknown," said Amy Gaffney, parent and member of the district's Citizen's Advisory Committee for Finance.

"Six schools meant six schools, not six plus one charter."

According to the district, if the charter school was awarded the Bullis School site as its campus, the district could lose additional rental revenue.

Jones said that the Bullis site issue is separate from the approval of the charter.

"The charter approval is independent of the site decision," Jones said. "We expect to get our charter approved regardless of the site decision. We are willing to pursue this charter even if we have to go with an alternative site. We are hoping for a win-win situation with Bullis."

Lillie sees the charter school effort as an attempt to save Bullis from actual closure.

"The driving force behind the petition is not better education for our children but an attempt to save a school that was closed," Lillie said. "I don't think it's the right thing to do for the 4,000 children of the Los Altos School District. The petition does not add value to the education of the children in the district, which is already top-notch and continually improving. It takes away from it."

Jones said the charter is willing to work with the district on finding ways for the Bullis site to generate revenue while being used by the charter school, like renting out space to the Los Altos Hills City Council who would use it as temporary meeting space while the new city hall is being built.

"Earlier in this process, we couldn't get the board to think about rental income and now that's what is important," Jones said. "All of the board members are on public record as saying that rental income is not important, and now they turn around and say we are keeping Bullis away from you because we need the Bullis rental income."

The district announced its official position not to award the Bullis site to the charter school at its March 17 meeting, though no formal action or vote was taken on the matter.

"What we are doing right now is going for approval of the charter, which is independent of the site," Jones said. "The issue that has biggest impact is rental income. The Per Daily Attendance is basically a wash because of the parcel tax. Once we get the charter, we will consider other sites along with Bullis where we can have a small school in a rural setting that takes advantage of the local flavor of Los Altos Hills. It will be an educational alternative open to every child in the district."

The district has until May 16 to make a decision regarding the charter. According to the law, a district must grant a charter to a school if the proposal is "consistent with sound educational practice."

The law states a board may not deny a petition unless it makes written factual findings that state the charter presents an unsound educational program; the petitioners are unlikely to successfully implement the program; the petition does not meet the signature requirement; the charter does not contain required affirmations or a comprehensive description of the charter criteria. A charter school can petition a denial at the county and state levels.

For more information, call the district office at 947-1150 or logon to www.bullischarter school.com.

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