Updated: Sept. 18, 2019
The Los Altos School District Board of Trustees is calling on the county to bar Bullis Charter School from offering an enrollment preference to students who live in what was the Bullis-Purissima School attendance area.
In a 15-page letter sent Sept. 10, the Los Altos board asks the Santa Clara County Board of Education, the chartering agency for Bullis Charter School, to reject the enrollment preference, calling it “a discriminatory admissions preference that gives priority to students who reside in the wealthiest and least socioeconomically diverse area within LASD.”
Bullis Charter School board member Francis La Poll called the move a “blatant PR stunt” and a “clear, willful mischaracterization” of the preference.
In June, charter school officials said the enrollment preference will once again be in effect for the 2020-2021 school year after it was restricted by the five-year facilities agreement that expired this summer. However, school district officials say they thought the preference was being phased out permanently.
For years, the charter school’s enrollment lottery included a preference for students who lived within the boundaries of Bullis-Purissima’s former attendance area. However, the five-year facilities agreement that both sides signed in 2014 called for the preference to be decreased for incoming kindergarten classes starting in 2015-2016, until it reached zero in 2019-2020.
The decision to send the letter was announced at the Sept. 9 Los Altos School District board meeting. Board President Jessica Speiser said the board voted unanimously in closed session to send the letter to the county, as well as a letter to the charter school explaining the district’s reasoning.
“We did this because we wanted to do what was best for our entire community. We need all of our public schools to mirror each other,” Speiser said in an interview with the Town Crier.
The district’s letter to the county says the charter school under-enrolls low-income students, English-language learners and special-needs students.
The district cites data from the state education department, including statistics from 2018 showing that 6.2% of the Los Altos School District’s students were socioeconomically disadvantaged, compared to 1.6% at Bullis Charter School.
The district asks the county to create a “comprehensive desegregation plan” that would include priority preference for these underrepresented students, an enrollment lottery run by county staff and restrictions on the charter school’s growth until “the discrimination is corrected.”
Charter school responds
La Poll responded Sept. 10 that Bullis Charter School is more geographically diverse than any other school in the Los Altos School District, with students hailing from all parts of the district.
Because of the way the attendance boundaries are drawn, La Poll said some of the district’s schools have far more low-income students than others. According to state data, in 2018 Santa Rita School had the highest proportion of socioeconomically disadvantaged students at 14.8%. Gardner Bullis School was the lowest at 1.6%.
He also argued that the Bullis-Purissima enrollment preference should be a settled issue.
“They’ve already picked this fight, sued the county and lost,” La Poll said. “If they want to reach a result that’s good for the community, it’s better if we’re not distracted by these red herrings.”
In 2008, the school district sued the county Office of Education to stop the enrollment preference. However, the judge ruled that the school district didn’t have standing to sue and that allowing the enrollment preference was within the county’s discretion.
Speiser said given that the judge ruled the district doesn’t have standing to sue, another lawsuit over the enrollment preference is not being considered. Instead, she said the school district is asking the county to use its discretion to put a stop to the enrollment preference.
In its letter to the county, district officials said the county has “done little to fulfill its mandatory duty to restrain the long running discrimination at BCS.”
In response to an email requesting an interview, county office of education spokeswoman Summer Reeves wrote, “We have received the Los Altos School District letter and are reviewing and analyzing its concerns in regards to Bullis Charter School. Santa Clara County Office of Education and Santa Clara County Board of Education take monitoring and oversight responsibilities very seriously.”
Reeves did not reply to follow-up emails requesting an interview.
La Poll also objected to the school district sending the letters while also running a community engagement process to find a long-term facilities solution for the charter school. He said it was disheartening that “here in the middle of what’s supposed to be a cooperative community process, (LASD) launches this divisive, false attack.”
Speiser said the letters about the enrollment preference were separate from the community engagement process but needed to be sent before the charter school holds its enrollment lottery for next school year, which is expected to be run in the second half of January.