05_12_21_SCH_BCS_0948

Zoe Morgan/Town Crier Bullis Charter School, above, isn't enrolling enough students from certain underrepresented groups, county official contend.

Bullis Charter School is failing to adequately enroll certain underrepresented student groups, the Santa Clara County Board of Education warned last week. If the imbalance isn’t addressed, the school’s charter could be at stake, which it requires to operate.

The board voted 6-1 at a May 5 meeting to authorize issuing a notice of concern to BCS, laying out the alleged violations and giving the school a chance to remedy the situation. The school’s charter is due to come before the county board for renewal next school year.

According to county officials, underrepresented groups at BCS include English learners, Hispanic students, those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and students with disabilities.

County board member Peter Ortiz supported sending BCS the notice of concern, saying he believes as the school’s authorizing body, the board is responsible for oversight and that BCS has an obligation to serve a population of students reflective of the local school district, which it is failing to do. Ortiz added that the notice of concern isn’t a final judgment, but is meant to inform BCS that “there are inclusivity issues that we are watching very closely and we would like them to rectify.”

“As elected leaders, it’s our job to govern in the public’s best interest, and we cannot stand idle when we’re having these concerns raised,” Ortiz said.

According to Mefula Fairley, director of the county’s charter schools department, the pupil balance at BCS has “long been a concern” to the county.

Thomas Yih, a BCS parent and member of the school’s board, spoke at the county’s meeting, urging that board not to approve sending the notice. He called the suggested justification for potentially not renewing the school’s charter “especially troubling.” Because more students apply than BCS can admit, the school conducts a lottery with preferences approved by the county, Yih said. He added that the proportion of most student groups at BCS has stayed relatively steady, with the only large decrease in the number of white students.

“We ask that you refrain from authorizing or delegating authority for a notice of violation unless and until the staff presents substantial, factual evidence that BCS is not complying with the law,” Yih said. “Otherwise, the county board is tainting what should be a fair renewal process, in violation of BCS’ right to due process.”

The one board member who voted against sending the notice of concern was Joseph Di Salvo, who said that though he believes BCS should be enrolling a more diverse student body, he couldn’t support the motion without seeing specific enrollment data and a copy of the letter the county will send BCS.

“I will not be supporting this motion, but I strongly support and will not be able to vote for renewal unless Bullis has a population serving lots more underserved kids than they currently serve – however they have to get there,” Di Salvo said.

He added that there are ways to make that happen, even with the school’s lottery process.

Comparative numbers

At last week’s board meeting, county staff did not present specific numbers to back up the enrollment disparities it alleged. Grace Mah, the board member whose territory encompasses the Los Altos School District, asked county staff for more information about the data it is basing its assessment on, but she still voted in favor of sending the notice of concern.

In an interview, BCS Superintendent Maureen Israel said the school is proud of its diversity and wants to serve all students, but doesn’t have the enrollment capacity to admit everyone who applies. She added that the school wants to review and understand the data the county is using.

“We definitely are a school that is open to any and all families, and we encourage all families to join us,” Israel said.

Although no enrollment numbers were shared at last week’s meeting, publicly available data from the California Department of Education shows that in 2020, the charter school enrolled lower proportions of the four student groups the county identified, compared to LASD.

At BCS, 1.4% of students were socioeconomically disadvantaged, per the state’s data, compared with 6% for LASD. English learners make up 5.7% of BCS students, compared to 11.1% in LASD. Students with disabilities account for 6.7% of BCS’ population versus 9.5% of LASD’s. At BCS, Hispanic students total 3.9% of the student body, whereas they make up 8% of LASD’s students.

At last week’s meeting, some local residents spoke during the public comment portion, supporting sending BCS the notice of concern. Among the commenters was Vaishali Sirkay, LASD’s board president, who called the move a “critical step in the right direction.”

“Especially now that BCS has grown to almost 1,100 kids, the staggering inequity in their enrollment becomes truly intolerable and of a magnitude that we cannot ignore,” Sirkay said. “I personally find it inconceivable and irresponsible that an organization receiving public funds can continue practices that have only proven to sustain and exacerbate its exclusivity.”