LASD seeks permanent suspension of Bullis-Purissima enrollment preference

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Bullis Charter School announced last month that it would continue to suspend its Bullis-Purissima enrollment preference, but officials didn’t say for how long.

The Los Altos School District is asking the Santa Clara County Board of Education to ensure Bullis Charter School permanently suspends its enrollment preference for students who live in the former Bullis-Purissima School attendance boundaries and that the suspension applies to all grade levels.

In an Oct. 30 letter to the county, the school district’s board of trustees acknowledged that the county objected to the tone of its original Sept. 10 missive. However, the district said it was pleased that the charter school, in an Oct. 11 letter to the county, announced that it would continue to suspend the preference. The school district’s board of trustees said it is a “good start” but it wants more action taken to correct what it describes as discrimination at the charter school.

“This suspension must be made permanent for all grades and BCS must develop an updated comprehensive plan designed to ensure a student population that mirrors the student demographics within the LASD boundaries that involve a transparent lottery conducted by (county) staff,” the letter reads.

Charter school board president Joe Hurd said in a statement that “these recent attacks from LASD are in bad faith” and run counter to the public engagement process that is currently happening around finding long-term facilities for the charter school.

“On the one hand, LASD wants district residents to think that it is working hand-in-hand with BCS to solve the long-term facilities issue at charrettes and workshops held throughout town,” Hurd said in the statement. “On the other, the Trustees are firing off letters to the Santa Clara County Office of Education filled with old allegations, anti-charter rhetoric, and hysterical charges directed against BCS.”

School district officials have said the letters are separate from the engagement process and that the initial letter objecting to the enrollment preference needed to be sent before the charter school holds its enrollment lottery for next school year.

For years, the charter school’s enrollment lottery included a preference for students who lived in 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.

Discrimination claims

The school district states that Bullis Charter School discriminates against students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, English-language learners and those with moderate to severe disabilities in its enrollment practices.

The fact that the charter school under-enrolls these students when compared to the district overall is on its face enough to show discrimination, the school district argues, stating that the “data alone demonstrates a disparate impact that must be corrected, regardless of the cause.”

For instance, in 2018, 6.2% of the Los Altos School District’s students were socioeconomically disadvantaged, compared to 1.6% at Bullis Charter School.

Charter school officials have previously argued that it is actually the school district itself that is segregated because some schools have a disproportionate number of underserved students. For instance, 38.6% of Santa Rita School students were English-language learners in 2018, compared to 7.1% of Oak Avenue School students.

In the Oct. 11 letter, the charter school said the school district was making “baseless, incendiary claims of ‘discrimination’ and ‘segregation’” without evidence.

“If LASD was truly concerned about ‘discriminatory impacts,’ LASD would change its attendance boundaries to address its own enrollment disparities,” the letter reads.

Beyond the data itself, the district argues in last week’s letter that the charter school has policies and practices that encourage applications from certain student groups, while discouraging applications from other underrepresented groups.

“Although the data that shows BCS under-enrollment from three distinct protected classes alone would warrant corrective action without any determination of how BCS has caused that disparate impact, the information submitted with this letter leaves little doubt that a myriad of BCS practices have contributed to these prohibited results,” the letter reads.

Among the practices the district cites is that in marketing materials the charter school “heavily features” trips to China, London, Costa Rica and Washington, D.C., which are not paid for by the school. The district also points to the effort to establish a separate charter school in Mountain View to serve students of low socioeconomic status and English-language learners as evidence of an “exclusionary culture.”

Attached to the letter are two testimonials from parents who say they experienced discrimination at Bullis Charter School, as well as declarations from parents that were submitted to the Santa Clara County Superior Court in 2012 as part of a case that was later settled.

Acknowledging the county’s objections

When county Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan responded on Oct. 2 to the school district’s original letter, she said the county took the district’s allegations and concerns seriously but was surprised and disappointed by the “unnecessarily aggressive and confrontational tone” of the district’s letter.

Dewan also stated the letter contained “extraneous, incorrect, or misleading information.” In particular, Dewan said the county “diligently” carries out its role in overseeing charter schools and that just because the Los Altos School District is high performing, that doesn’t mean there is something “improper or illegal” about a charter school operating within the district’s boundaries.

Hurd echoed the county’s concerns in his statement, saying, “Rather than set the record straight, LASD has set out to rehash old tropes out of the anti-charter playbook instead of actually responding to Superintendent Dewan’s legitimate concerns.”

In the school district’s response last week, trustees said they recognize the county was upset about the tone used in their letter, but that it was the result of the position that they are in.

“Our tone was a product of our dedication to ensuring equity in education and the fact that Los Altos School District (LASD) has been requesting the County step in and take action to ensure Bullis Charter School (BCS) mirrors LASD’s demographics for over 15 years,” the trustees wrote.

Dewan declined a request for comment on the district’s most recent letter.

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