Long-term school facilities discussions continue

Members of the Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School boards continued to debate fairness and philosophy at two meetings convened last week to address long-term facilities solutions.

Board members Francis La Poll and Peter Evans represented Bullis Charter School at the meetings, and Los Altos School District Board President Doug Smith and Trustee Tammy Logan participated on behalf of the district. Los Altos Hills Mayor Gary Waldeck mediated the discussion.

The district trustees outlined many concerns and perceptions the community has formed about the charter school program and offered suggestions for mitigating those opinions, which they feel stand in the way of passing a bond to fund construction of a new campus to house Bullis Charter School.

“You are asking us to make changes to our charter,” Evans said of the trustees’ suggestions. “First of all, this is about facilities. I don’t know why we are talking about how we operate the school. You say these are community concerns – how could that be? They are concerns that you two have raised over and over until they became public concerns.”

The future of face-to-face facilities meetings is up in the air – there are no follow-up meetings currently scheduled.

Enrollment preference

Smith indicated that the Site Committee is focusing on Los Altos Hills in its search for a charter school site. He said it would “be a step in the right direction” to drop the charter school’s 50 percent preference allotment for students who live in Los Altos Hills.

“You are giving a 50 percent advantage to 7 percent of the community,” Logan said. “Your current enrollment system is not seen as fair. It needs to be seen as fair if you want us to get you a site of your own.”

Evans said the purpose of the charter school’s enrollment preference was to make it easier for students to attend school with their neighbors.

La Poll added that he thought the preference should continue, especially if the charter school is located in Los Altos Hills.

Underserved student populations

The district’s second request also concerned current enrollment preference guidelines. District representatives proposed that a preference for underserved student populations should replace the current preference for Los Altos Hills students.

“There is a lot of conversation about student groups you don’t serve right now,” Smith told the charter school representatives. “They are being discussed in the community and in the county – the mix of students and whether or not certain student groups are being served.”

Smith recommended offering preference to students with special needs and those who are English-language learners or socioeconomically underserved.

“Our demographics are comparable to the district’s,” La Poll responded. “What you are suggesting sounds reasonable but is not.”

Logan said there are legal ways California charter schools can give preference to underserved student populations.

“When I talk to folks about working with Bullis Charter School for a bond, I get a visceral reaction to the student body,” Smith said. “They say, ‘They don’t serve these types of students.’ What I see is there is a program that is not attracting these types of students or is not retaining them. The community sees the same thing, and we have to figure out how to address that.”

Evans disagreed, calling Smith’s contention an example of a “false fact.” Both sides introduced data to support their positions. Smith suggested that the district and Bullis Charter School share best practices from each program with one another to assure the community that all students are well served.

“We believe we have balanced enrollments,” La Poll said. “We believe with the populations we have, we do a better job.”

Smith and Logan asked to review the charter school’s current enrollment data to determine if the underserved populations were increasing.

Evans said he wasn’t sure if the numbers were readily available, but representatives would initiate a request.

“This is a topic that has been flogged by district board members that somehow we don’t serve certain populations,” Evans said. “That is absurd – you can’t ensure equal outcomes.”

Smith replied by stating that the perception could be countered radically if current data were available.

Capping enrollment in the interim

Smith asked the charter school representatives if it were possible to cap their enrollment in the interim as a “small thing to do for us to get community support.”

“We want to serve any district child who wants to attend Bullis Charter School,” Evans said. “That goes against that (objective).”

La Poll said he and Evans couldn’t agree to limit the school’s enrollment.

At the second meeting last week, the charter school board members laid out their projections for Bullis Charter School growth. As currently proposed, the school would reach capacity at 900 students.

“There are a number of ways to deal with the concerns of neighbors,” Evans said. “Perhaps not adding additional strands is on the table. I don’t think that is good for the school or the community, but I wouldn’t say it is off the table.”

La Poll said the charter school board has discussed organizing drop-offs in a different location and shuttling students to Bullis Charter School’s two campuses to help control traffic.

“This issue isn’t trying to hold the enrollment down, it is to address the concerns of the neighbors,” La Poll said.

Future talks?

Smith drafted a document that outlined many of the charter school’s short-term problems with the Facilities Use Agreement and how the charter school could take action to address community concerns. The document was not designed to be accepted as is, he said, but as a starting point to work toward some sort of resolution to reach mutual support for a bond.

Evans said the short-term items shouldn’t be tied to the long-term document, because those are problems that require immediate attention.

“Neither party has the confidence that if they follow through on everything that the other party will come through,” Smith said. “So the idea is, we wrap it all together and we all get what we want in one package.”

La Poll began the Sept. 18 meeting by critiquing the conduct at the district-Bullis Charter School meetings, which he claimed encouraged grandstanding. Unavailable to meet for two weeks, he said that if the long-term meetings were to reconvene, he would rather have them behind closed doors.

“I think you are putting too much onto Bullis Charter School,” he said. “We should not be the linchpin of the bond measure. This is the tail wagging the dog.”

Smith said the charter school is the linchpin, and people are going to consider the bond the “Bullis Charter School bond.”

“We are having this conversation so that Bullis Charter School can have its own campus,” Smith said. “That is going to take a big chunk of the bond money.”

La Poll said all he wanted was for the charter school to receive a “proportionate” amount of the bond money, and that it not be treated differently from other district schools.

Evans said he is interested in continuing the talks but questioned whether a bond is the “best means to the end – the end being a stable facilities solution.”

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