Stripped of the emotional arguments usually accompanying such discussions, last week’s fact-based forum comparing Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School operations revealed more similarities than differences.
Members of the Los Altos Women’s Caucus, who led the June 4 forum at the Los Altos main library, made clear from the start they would stay away from analysis of the recent controversial 10-year proposal leasing the bulk of the school district’s Egan Junior High School campus to Bullis Charter School, while moving Egan students to the new 10th campus site in Mountain View. Instead, veteran district numbers-cruncher Curtis Cole offered a side-by-side comparison of budget numbers and how each entity is governed.
Joan Barram, former Foothill-De Anza Community College District trustee, opened the forum. She said Jeffrey Baier, superintendent of the district, “has assured me that the decision about the future of Bullis Charter and the Egan school site has not been made.”
Cole, a former Los Altos mayor and longtime member of the district’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee for Finance, presented figures that showed both entities spend close to the same amount of money per student – approximately $14,300 annually for the charter school versus nearly $15,000 for the district. Cole also pointed to similar structures at the two institutions, claiming that both emphasize “individualized learning” and adhere to federal Common Core curriculum practices. Class sizes also proved roughly similar with classes averaging approximately 25 students.
The facts sometimes conflicted with opponents’ claims that Bullis Charter School functions as a private school. Cole noted the charter school is “not exempt from laws that apply to public agencies, including the requirement to hold public meetings.”
He also pointed to the passage of State Senate Bill 126, effective next year, which makes charter schools subject to the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law, and requires board members to disclose conflicts of interest.
Statistics also refuted critics’ charges that a large percentage of Bullis Charter School students are from outside district boundaries. According to Cole, 91 percent of the charter school’s student body in 2018-2019 resides within school district boundaries, with that figure projected to rise to 96 percent in 2019-2020.
In the forum attended by board members and supporters of both institutions, Cole and the Women’s Caucus addressed the oft-cited issue of special needs and other disadvantaged students.
Cole reported that 15 percent of the district’s 4,243 students this school year are English language learners or foster youth or receive free or reduced-price meals. The Bullis Charter School figure for the same group is 10.5 percent of its enrolled 912 students. He added that 10 percent of district students require special education, while the charter school total is 6.9 percent.
Cole noted charter school admission is lottery based. Bullis officials claim a waiting list of approximately 1,000 students.
The forum moderators also touched on state Proposition 39, passed in 2000, which regulates charter school facilities.
Requirements include “reasonably equivalent” facilities, which are similarly furnished and equipped, and located near the area in which the charter school wishes to operate.
A five-year agreement reached in 2014 suspended the yearly Proposition 39 negotiations and halted litigation over facilities. The agreement’s expiration this year prompted a new 10-year proposal, but public outcry over Bullis Charter School’s use of the Egan campus prompted the district and charter school boards to settle on an interim two-year plan. The interim agreement essentially buys time to fully air out the longer-term proposal and solicit additional public feedback.
“The school district is designing a process to engage the entire community in the decision-making process,” said Barram, noting the process begins this summer and continues through January.
For more information on the school district and charter school comparison, visit the Los Altos Women’s Caucus website at losaltoswomenscaucus.org.