Schoolyard Fight
California Lawyer

Schoolyard Fight

A charter school's bid for more space divides a Silicon Valley suburb.

October 2013


Illustration by Rafael Ricoy

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On a summer weekday in downtown Los Altos, every table at Starbucks is home to an open laptop. Business attire trends toward Bermuda shorts and cotton shirts here. Seated outdoors, two middle-age men in jeans hold a serious discussion. Their topic could be the early stages of a business deal, or, just as easily, a controversy in the local schools.

After all, there is a war going on here.

Los Altos - a few freeway exits south of the larger peninsula hub of Palo Alto, which is to say, Stanford - is no less a home to Silicon Valley innovators, the lawyers who represent them, and the investors who pay for it all. The town's anchor is a quaint, charming downtown, awash in new money, but rich with an old-fashioned feel. Wooden benches and pots filled with brightly colored flowers line the streets. Sidewalks are brimming with fit, healthy looking, well-manicured people who live in million-dollar-plus homes.

The local newspaper, the Los Altos Town Crier, is still widely read and has a storefront on Main Street. At the same time, the community shares news and opinions through a multitude of blogs, online sites, chat boards, and social media outlets. A cursory stroll through the Internet reveals that Los Altos residents have a lot to say.

A few blocks away on this otherwise pleasant August morning, less than two weeks before the opening of school, some 20 parents of children at Bullis Charter School stand outside the headquarters of the Los Altos School District holding colorful homemade signs that read "Talk It Out," "Kids Are Locked Out," and "Put Kids First." Their immediate audience remains small, but news of the event moves swiftly through town; supporters make sure by alerting the Bay Area media with a press release.

The Los Altos Patch, AOL's local news site covering Los Altos, carried a news story with the subheading, "School hasn't even started and things are already ugly." Other local news sites promptly published competing letters on the matter from the heads of the district and the charter school boards.

Thanks to an odd legal configuration, the Los Altos School District (LASD) serves as landlord to Bullis Charter School (BCS), which competes with the district for K-8 student enrollment and the accompanying government funding. The two entities are entrenched in a long-running and acrimonious disagreement over the charter's use of certain of LASD's facilities. In the current episode, the district is requiring Bullis to sign a Facilities Use Agreement (casually referred to in some circles as the "F.U. Agreement") that restricts the number and age of students to be taught at each site.

For most of the past decade, the BCS and LASD boards have spent millions of dollars in public and private funds on a legal battle over how they can coexist and share resources, as state law requires. Since 2000 California law has mandated that "public school facilities should be shared fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools." (Cal. Educ. Code § 47614(a).)

A national movement originally designed to provide an alternative to failing public schools in low-income areas, charters are increasingly cropping up in wealthier suburbs as a way to create elite institutions that operate with public funds yet are not subject to most of the statutory and union-contract requirements to which public schools must adhere. In these contexts, "school choice" becomes the ability to upgrade.

The conflict in Los Altos has divided the high-achieving residents of this upscale enclave, where most everyone who has kids, and even some who don't, are forced to choose sides or lose friends. This enduring litigation, fueled by wealth that can underwrite seven-figure legal fees and by the drive of Silicon Valley culture, may eventually change state law.

On both sides are some of California's top-performing schools, backed by plenty of law firms: Morrison & Foerster and Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savtich for Bullis, and Burke, Williams & Sorensen and Reed Smith for LASD.

As Raymond Cardozo, the district's attorney and a partner at Reed Smith, sees it, "This conflict started because the charter school was started for the wrong reasons."

Michelle Sturiale has two children attending Santa Rita Elementary School in the Los Altos district. Like most families in LASD, the Sturiales chose their home in part because the district's schools are rated among the top 1 percent in California (three are nationally recognized). Her children can easily walk to school, and Sturiale has always been an active volunteer at Santa Rita, even serving as its PTA president.

Bullis Charter School, which opened its doors in 2004, was of little interest to Sturiale and her family, she says, until it began to draw more and more neighborhood families away from Santa Rita. Sturiale has not been shy about criticizing BCS for what she describes as exclusivity: In a district where only 4 percent of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and 9 percent are English-language learners, Santa Rita has more than twice the rates in both categories.

At the other end of the scale, Bullis has less than 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively, despite reporting numerous recruitment efforts. BCS, Sturiale asserts, is only interested in the easier-to-educate, high-achieving children of wealthier and well educated parents.

At Santa Rita, by contrast, there are parents with "blue collar jobs as well as executives," Sturiale says. "This is where I want my children to be."

But in nine years Bullis's elementary and middle-school enrollment has grown from 170 to more than 630 - enough to occupy an entire campus of the 4,500-student LASD, which has nine. And so each year the scramble for district real estate begins anew.

When a proposal emerged last year to redesignate a local campus for the charter school (Santa Rita was an early candidate), Sturiale and several other neighborhood parents mobilized and began looking into legal options. Among other concerns, she said, the move might be particularly hard on some lower-income families who would be unable to drive their children to a more distant school. Sturiale hosted a chat group online and spoke out at public forums.

"I think the fight against the charter school has solidified and strengthened the district schools," she says.

Even so, it has driven a wedge between some friends and neighbors. "It's pretty bad," Sturiale says of relations between parents at Bullis Charter and the LASD schools. "I have about five people I no longer speak to. People will cross the street and walk on the other sidewalk. And ... I have received anonymous hate mail at my home."

One particularly angry group of LASD supporters operates an anti-Bullis website. A parody of a Nazi movie on YouTube skewers the Bullis board. On local news sites and blogs, comments from both sides range from opinionated to just mean. Church leaders hosted two community meetings directed at healing, but neither was successful.

The legal fight between Bullis Charter School and Los Altos School District is rooted in a conflict that has ignited community battles across America for decades: the closing of a neighborhood school.

In 2003, facing declining enrollment numbers and state funding cuts, the LASD Board of Trustees shuttered its Bullis-Purissima Elementary School, the only one located in Los Altos Hills (half of which is included in LASD). The closure came on the heels of a bond measure to renovate schools, which Los Altos Hills parents had supported because they believed it would include their school. When Bullis-Purissima instead closed, they were enraged and felt duped.

In California, charter schools are public schools that receive per-child funding from the state and use public school facilities, but they are free to design their own education program and may be governed by an independent board. (Cal. Educ. Code §§ 47600-47644.) Many of the early efforts in the 1990s targeted drop-outs, at-risk populations, and other students who were not succeeding in traditional classrooms. During the past decade, however, charter schools have been used more aggressively as a vehicle for reform.

Supporters hail the movement as a path to improving the public school system by fostering innovation and growing new ideas from within. Critics accuse charters of "creaming" - enrolling the students who are most likely to succeed, leaving the costlier-to-educate students in traditional schools.

California became the second state in the nation (behind Minnesota) to allow charter schools in 1992, and now it leads the country in both the number and growth of charters. There is little question that the idea behind charters was to shake things up: The statute lays out several goals - including increasing student achievement and encouraging innovation - but it also targets performance-based outcomes, a politically heated issue in education, and "vigorous competition within the public school system." (Cal. Educ. Code § 47601(g).)

When Bullis-Purissima closed, parents in Los Altos Hills approached LASD with an application to create a charter at the same location. The district, presumably not eager to lose the money for those students and unconvinced that a charter would succeed, said no. Twice. In the end, the Santa Clara County Office of Education granted Bullis its charter, and it opened in August 2004 at one corner of the campus of Egan Junior High School in North Los Altos. The county charter, later upheld by a superior court judge, also included a controversial preference in admission favoring residents of the adjacent, more affluent Los Altos Hills.

State law allows a district, county, or state board to charter a school, but it dictates that school districts must provide to charter school students facilities reasonably equal to what they would have "if they were attending other public schools of the district."(Cal. Educ. Code § 47614(b).) Thus, LASD now must provide space for a school over which it otherwise has no authority.

"It's a very peculiar situation," says John C. Lemmo, an attorney with Procopio in San Diego who represents Bullis and other charter schools throughout the state.

Lemmo notes that although school districts can finance their facilities through capital funds and local bond measures, charter schools initially had to use their operating funds to lease buildings. That changed in 2000 when California voters passed Proposition 39. The law requires school districts to make "reasonably equivalent" facilities available to charter school students, as it does for all other students living within district boundaries. (Cal. Educ. Code § 47614(b).)

"Proposition 39 tends to equalize and acknowledges that school district facilities are owned by all of us, the public," Lemmo says. "It's kids' choice and parents' choice whether they want that facility to be operated by the local district or the charter school."

That, at least, is the charter proponents' theory. But in Los Altos, that theory is being put to repeated tests as a bitterly divided community debates how to allocate its limited public education resources.

The legal docket on matters involving Bullis Charter School and Los Altos School District includes eight superior court cases with myriad motion fights, followed by various appeals. In most of those complaints, the court has ruled for the school district.

But in 2011 Bullis won a challenge to the lower court's finding about how the district measured space; the Sixth District Court of Appeal found that LASD significantly underestimated nonclassroom space when it determined "equivalent" facilities. (Bullis Charter School v. Los Altos School Dist., 200 Cal. App. 4th 1022 (2011).) The state Supreme Court declined to review the ruling.

"The reported Bullis decision is a very helpful case" for the interpretation of Prop. 39, says Lemmo.

Another legal skirmish between LASD and Bullis - involving the charter foundation's suggested $5,000-per-child donation and its $7 million endowment fund - may also prove to be significant. In a cross-complaint filed last November in Santa Clara County Superior Court, LASD contends that Bullis discriminates against low-income, English-deficient, and special-needs students - and that the district should be allowed to consider the private wealth available to the charter school when it allocates public resources. Alleging that the $5,000 donation is not truly voluntary and amounts to "tuition," which is not legal, the district argues that if Bullis is not acting like a public school, LASD is not required to provide it with facilities. Bullis has denied the allegations, responding with an unsuccessful anti-SLAPP suit against the district. (In recent years, the county board of education has required BCS to make clearer to parents that the $5,000 donation is optional.) Meanwhile, Bullis leaders maintain that the district has discriminated against its children for years by assigning them to temporary, modular classrooms. (See Bullis Charter School v. Los Altos Sch. Dist., No. 1-12 CV-232187) (Santa Clara Super. Ct.).)

"The easiest thing would be to give Bullis whatever they want," says Cardozo, LASD's Reed Smith attorney based in San Francisco. "But that's catering to the special interests of a well-financed group."

Along the way, Bullis has sought attorneys fees of $1.3 million from the school district as reimbursement for its successful appeals court action. But a superior court judge late last year sanctioned Bullis more than $50,000 for not disclosing financial information to LASD; the order is being appealed. (Bullis Charter Sch. v. Los Altos Sch. Dist., pending as No. H039038 Cal. Ct. App., 6th Dist.)

"One of the absolutely brutal aspects of this is that every year the charter school digs into its private coffers and sues the local district," says Cardozo. "That's another element that's distressing. These other kids can't hire Morrison & Foerster and spend $1.3 million to challenge something."

Doug Smith is father to a student and a former student in the Los Altos School District. By day he is a senior executive at an internet company. Much of the rest of the time he is - as school board president - at the center of the Los Altos school conflict. Elected to the LASD board in 2009, he is far from its loudest voice, but nonetheless a strong leader.

The Los Altos district's heady performance rankings make many of its parents shake their heads at the decision to create a charter school here. The district operates nine neighborhood schools (seven are elementary), a concept that Smith says is deeply rooted in Los Altos and has helped it match services with students' needs. For example, because there are more English learners in some schools than in others, the district can target its language services more efficiently; otherwise, each school's curriculum is mostly the same.

But that's not to say that LASD is without innovation. It is the original home of Khan Academy, the popular online learning site developed by Salman Khan, and it has been a pilot in Khan's expansion into classroom software applications. A Skype learning program connects students with classrooms and people around the globe. And the Los Altos School District has its own private benefactors. On top of the $10,000-per-child revenue from state sources and local property taxes, the Los Altos Education Foundation brought in about $3 million last year, shared among all LASD schools. Much of the money goes to hire more teachers to keep classroom sizes lower. School PTAs also raise money for equipment and extras.

Unlike at charter schools, however, all the private resources benefiting LASD schools get factored into its formula for creating "reasonably equivalent" facilities. For instance, says Cardozo, if the district's PTAs contribute funds to improve a site or pay for a science lab, that money counts as money the district spends. Yet when a charter school purchases a new building, it's not considered in the analysis. Clearly, the state's charter school law did not foresee two wealthy, top-performing entities battling it out.

"They (Bullis) raise on an annual basis almost ten times per capita what families in the very same school district raise in support of LASD," Cardozo points out. "There is a substantial skewing going on.

"Charter laws are supposed to be about improving public education," he says. "It's not a public subsidy to go run a private school."

No one argues that Bullis Charter isn't a good school. Its students score in the stratosphere on state standardized tests. In every grade they learn a foreign language - Mandarin or Spanish - and study drama. The curriculum is integrated so that students have lessons in subjects like reading, math, and science throughout the day - in the classroom, as well as in their art projects and physical education. They design and build things in a fabrication laboratory equipped with a 3-D printer. They take trips to other countries.

Wanny Hersey, superintendent and principal at Bullis, has worked in high- and low-wealth districts around California. "I believe in quality public education for all," she says. What makes the difference in Bullis's program, Hersey says, is that the charter's administrators can hire (and fire) whomever they want and spend money however they see fit, unfettered by union contracts and regulations such as state-mandated textbooks.

"We are nimble," she says. "We can say 'this is great and it's going to meet our needs' and just use the money and make it work."

Hersey, the fast-moving, highly confident head of Bullis since it opened, is herself a point of controversy with LASD parents. Mostly, it's because she is the public face of Bullis. But people point to her salary of more than $250,000 as an example of the excesses that Bullis can afford even while using public money and facilities.

As a charter, Bullis receives state aid of about $6,000 per child, but not the additional $4,000 that LASD gets directly from property taxes, including a local parcel tax. Of course, Bullis more than makes up for the difference through fund-raising, another sore point with LASD parents.

On the Egan campus, the school itself is made of yellow modular buildings arranged in a sort of square around a blacktopped area, with a corridor of classrooms shooting off one end and a building at the front housing the office. Because of the temporary buildings it is often referred to as a "camp school" - and Bullis never wanted to be assigned that space. Originally, Bullis had sought to be housed in the Bullis-Purissima building in Los Altos Hills that the district closed and years later reopened as a district elementary school. Now, both those sites are too small to hold the growing Bullis population. LASD's designation of additional space for the charter school across town from Egan on its Blach Intermediate School campus is the subject of the present dispute.

Bullis sued to keep the district from splitting its allotted space into two locations, arguing it interferes with the charter's K-8 program. (See Bullis Charter School v. Los Altos Sch. Dist. No. 1-13-CV-245684 (Santa Clara Super. Ct.).) But LASD has no K-8 programs, and the court ruled that the district isn't required to reconfigure its existing facilities to accommodate a charter school with a different program.

But the part of the arrangement Bullis objects to most - the reason for the August protest - is that the school district wants BCS to keep only fourth-grade students and above at Blach because its facilities on that campus do not meet state standards for younger children; LASD believes it wouldn't be safe. The district also is limiting the total number of Bullis students in the designated space at both Egan and Blach.

Bullis leaders consider the proposal to be part of the charter's continuing harassment. "This is flat out discrimination on many levels," says BCS board Chairman Ken Moore. "Just because you choose an alternative school in the district, you should not be suffering."

Two of Moore's children attended Bullis, and he has been on the school's board since shortly after its beginning. "I initially thought it would never get off the ground," he laughs. Moore helped lead Bullis through its start-up phase with the idea it would become something more than a copy of another LASD school, which he considered redundant.

Moore has a name that arrives before he does. He is the son of billionaire Gordon Moore, a Silicon Valley pioneer who cofounded Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corporation and authored Moore's Law, a backbone theory of the technology industry. Ken Moore runs the Bay Area arm of the family's Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a Bullis funder.

Certainly, Moore's presence as Bullis board chairman does nothing to mitigate the school's super-elite image. And yet, he has a commitment to public education in general - perhaps more so than parents who would otherwise opt to send their children to private school.

"I've lived in the district my whole life," Moore points out. "I went to these schools. ... I don't have anything particularly bad to say about the education, it's just that we offer something very distinctly different [at Bullis]. That's why we get so many applicants to our school and we have to have a lottery."

And as BCS attorney Lemmo notes, under current state policy, "Parents get to keep choosing to go to Bullis or not" - the school district can't cap its enrollment.

"Los Altos is giving the school a split offer instead of what the district should do," Lemmo says, "which is change [attendance] boundaries to reflect the population. They haven't adjusted boundaries in ten years."

In the end, Bullis wants a campus to itself. LASD is using all of its schools. And the idea of Bullis taking over one of the district's campuses - and forcing the redistribution of students currently attending there - has fired up Los Altos parents. To them, it feels wrong - the "haves" being taken advantage of by the "have-even-mores."

Bullis families have reported taunting of their children by district kids; others are afraid to wear their school spirit gear in downtown Los Altos, according to Joe Hurd, a BCS board member.

Earlier this year, the Bullis board voted against letting LASD board president Smith attend the school's planning sessions on how to best utilize the space on the Egan and Blach campuses. Smith asserted that they were public meetings, but Bullis officials disagreed and Smith says Bullis Superintendent Hersey threatened to call the police. (Public school boards are subject to the Brown Act (Cal. Gov't Code §§ 54950-54963), but it isn't clear whether the law applies to charter school boards. Bullis officials have said that the school follows the Brown Act.)

The closest thing to détente in the Los Altos school system came at the end of the 2011-12 school year. Smith and fellow board member Mark Goines walked into the multipurpose room at Egan Junior High and prepared for the first of seven scheduled meetings around the district to explain a plan they hoped would end the conflict between Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School. The weather was warming up, and so were tensions among parents.

For much of the spring, Smith and Goines had been part of a district mediation team that met confidentially with a Bullis team. They had gathered in conference rooms at the Palo Alto and San Francisco offices of Morrison & Foerster, the law firm of Bullis co-counsel Arturo J. Gonzalez Jr. (As an elected official, Smith in particular had been uncomfortable about the confidential nature of the mediation, but for the promise of peace he'd gone along.) Some sessions were facilitated by retired Appellate Justice Richard McAdams, and after several there was a tentative agreement. Now Smith and Goines had to roll it out to the public.

Negotiators had agreed on four existing campuses within the district that would be acceptable choices to house Bullis. The district would build another school to accommodate its own students, replacing whichever campus was assigned to Bullis. There would be a bond measure to fund the new school, and there were high hopes that everyone would support it.

"The goal was to go out to the community and say, 'We solved this,' " Smith says. "We thought people would be very excited about having a new school."

They were not.

The parents of the Los Altos district are very emotionally attached to the neighborhood schools they have. They've bought homes and grown neighborhoods around those schools. PTAs have raised money and spent time improving them. Many LASD parents were willing to work toward passing a bond to build a new school - but only if it went to Bullis, so their own kids could stay put. And because four LASD campuses were possible candidates to be turned over to Bullis, there were four meetings featuring four communities of angry parents.

For their part, Bullis parents wanted something already set in concrete, literally, and not a promise: No new construction.

Since neither side trusted the other enough to give up what they already had for some future plan, the precarious framework from the mediation fell apart. Given the reaction of the parents, the LASD board would not support an agreement that included redesignating an existing site.

But a new group of parents formed to do battle: the Huttlinger Alliance for Education, which supports the interests of existing district students, mostly in litigation. "We saw LASD as the fulcrum, and BCS on one side. No one was on the other side," says parent Noah D. Mesel. Before the mediated plan was abandoned, "I was talking with my youngest child, who was horrified that she would have to leave her school," he said. "I promised her one night at bedtime that I will not let that happen."

Once engaged, the LASD parents did what came naturally: break down the problem. They regularly read and share court filings. They do research and sometimes create spreadsheets to make a point in a meeting. They persuade others. And so the Huttlinger Alliance became a sort of information clearing house for connecting like-minded parents. In May, the alliance held a public forum for everyone in town with an overview of all the litigation. Attorneys hired by Huttlinger - including Audra S. Ibarra of Palo Alto and Mark V. Boennighausen of Los Altos - have filed amicus briefs on behalf of LASD students in two court cases.

From time to time the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees leaves its board room to meet at various schools. Folding tables with name plates are set out to serve as a dais at one end of the room. Most meetings begin in the same way, with the Pledge of Allegiance. But at one such meeting in the summer of 2012 - eight years into litigation with Bullis Charter School - the proceedings were delayed while each member of the school board was served with a lawsuit (never mind that the school district has an attorney of record). The audience waited as a young man distributed papers to everyone seated at the table. When that business was done, then-board president Goines led the audience in the pledge: "... with liberty and justice for all."

Litigation scorecards are kept all over Los Altos. The school district has a page on its website on titled "BCS Litigation," and the Huttlinger Alliance maintains another, "LASD/BCS Facilities Litigation." Anyone who follows the controversy knows the cases like baseball stats.

Observers estimate that the total price tag has crested $5 million. LASD has already spent at least $2 million and budgeted another $1 million in each of the next six years for litigation costs; Bullis, not subject to disclosure laws, isn't saying.

"I've learned a whole lot about the law that I never thought I needed to know," says Bullis board chairman Moore. The charter, he says, is paying its considerable legal costs from the interest off a fund originally intended to finance a school site.

Lately the focus has shifted to LASD's cross-complaint charging that Bullis is not meeting its public obligation to serve all children equally. The outcome could have implications for charter schools across the state, according to Cardozo.

"We assume now that everything we do [as a district] is going to be [put] in front of a judge," says Smith, the LASD board president. "You have to put faith in the legal process if you want to do what's right for the kids."

In September, after Bullis signed the present facilities agreement under protest, both sides agreed to come to the table. Two tables, actually: Representatives of BCS and LASD have formed into two groups, one to discuss short-term issues surrounding the split-campus configuration and another focusing on the long-term problem of housing Bullis Charter School. Meanwhile, the Internet sites in Los Altos are buzzing.

Lisa Davis is a freelance writer and author of The Sins of Brother Curtis: A Story of Betrayal, Conviction, and the Mormon Church. She teaches journalism at Santa Clara University.


Reader Comments

Comment by Joan J. Strong - October 1, 2013
This school was formed to essentially reverse a single facilities decision made by the local school board. The public school that was closed was re-opened 5 years later, and is now by far the favorite school for new families in that area--the local school board corrected their mistake. However, the battle goes on as BCS has bred an army of (very rich) "true believers" who are still angry over what happened 10 years ago. At the heart of this battle is local democracy. BCS has fought EVERY locally elected school board for the last 10 years so this isn't just a personal beef with a few named politicians. They tried--and failed--to install one of their own on the local school board. This town, already the home of one of the highest-ranked school districts in the State, sees no need for the drastic remedy of a charter school. They have no interest in paying for other people's private school. Etc. BCS makes no attempt at smoothing things over with the local population and they even go out of their way to antagonize them, opposing a local school funding initiative that was passed by a 66% majority. This school was founded to override local democracy and continues to fight local democracy with every tool they have including millions of dollars in cash. They are trying to weaken local democracy in favor of non-elected plutocrats, and trying to allow every community in the State to do the same.
Comment by John K. Strong - October 1, 2013
The article here is balanced between the two sides, but it misses on several facts. The quote on the parental contributions being included in the baseline that district has to match for the charter is wrong. For example, the parents purchase many computers for the school district, which provides none to the charter. The key factor here is that the are the district serves is very affluent. The income level average in Los Altos is $160,000 per household, several time the state average. The charter school is just mirroring its community. The English Learners in Los Altos are not disadvantaged. A lot of them are the children of wealthy immigrants in high paying jobs in the area. They are much better equipped to pick up English than the stereotypical English Learner in the state's schools. The languages range from Mandarin to Russian to Japanese, as well as Spanish. Unlike the state, Spanish is the native language of only 30% of the English Learners in the Los Altos schools. The variations in the income levels, although all affluent, is considerable between schools. As alluded to in the article, the Santa Rita School has 8% low income students, but since the average for the district is 4%, and there are 7 elementary schools, except for one other in the 8% area, the other 5 are near zero in terms of low income. Many other areas besides Los Altos Hills have large sections with $200K or so household incomes. Interestingly, these areas tend to cluster around elementary schools. The district has lots of land and lots of space. It currently has one 16 acre elementary school site that it uses to house a sub-500 student school and also a considerable amount of space for the district's offices. The charter school is growing and with each increment it becomes more diverse. Attendees come from the entire district. Only 1/3 of Los Altos Hills is in its enrollment preference area which includes parts of Los Altos as well. Only 1/4 of the charter students come from the preference area.
Comment by LASD Parent - October 1, 2013
Hello David Roode (or is it Leroy Jenkinds today?), mighty quick of you to come and post here in an attempt to rewrite some truths. Honestly, I couldn't believe you would be able to twist such a well balanced piece into your singular world view. Where to start. Computers: BCS can buy whatever they want with their PTA and BPESF contributions. A lot of LASD computers are bought by the PTA, and last I checked computers is not a facility. ELL: So you are going to doubt an actual Santa Rita parent on the ELL makeup of that school, you being a non-parent who hasn't step inside a classroom? District land: LASD has lots of land but they are being used in a way that best works for our kids. Cramming more kids onto less space is not ideal, is not what we want, and we believe will unfairly impact our kids. BCS deserves land of their own, so let's get that bond going! LASD enrollment is growing, so why reduce the land size we already have? Los Altos Hills: If only 1/3 of Los Altos Hills is in the preference area and only a fraction of all Los Altos Hills residents go to BCS, why have the preference? BCS is a district wide charter. It shouldn't have an enrollment preference to begin with unless the charter was formed explicitly to replace a district school (Ca Ed 47605-d-1). BCS didn't form this way as this geopreference didn't occur until years later.
Comment by Joan J. Strong - October 1, 2013
BCS has ZERO Spanish-speaking English Language Learners even though, as the poster above points out, 1/3 of the District's ELLs are Spanish-speaking. So to BCS supporters like the above poster (who has chosen to engage in a personal attack in the form of a taunting name, in strict violation of this website's written guidelines) ELLs at BCS are generally NOT disadvantaged and fit the description given. LASD schools take all comers, including disadvantaged ones. That's the what public schools do. That's not what BCS does. The BCS campus is geographically the closest to our most Spanish-speaking population as well. In the face of that and other statistics which clearly show a charter school which has engaged (wittingly or not) in a careful selection process, BCS supporters attempt to whitewash this saying their pseudo-private school is "just like the rest". The above poster also tries to fool you by equating non-facilities expenses like computers (which are legally not required to be provided to charter schools) with hard facilities like the examples given in the story. Disingenuous tactics like this are the currency of Bullis Charter School. They are not confined to mere Internet comments like this one, rather, we've read them in expensive full-page ads in our newspapers as well. The last "PR campaign" launched by BCS costed over $300,000, which is to say about $500 per student there, or enough to fund at least three full time teachers at the school. This demonstrates their priorities.
Comment by James - October 1, 2013
Thank you Lisa. Very good and in depth article that gets to the real issues.
Comment by LASD Parunt - October 1, 2013
One of the problems in having rational debate about this issue is the degree of animosity and personalized attack in the discourse. The Ad Hominem comments by the woman hiding under the LASD Parent moniker are amazing. No one individual could possible be to blame for this conflict. A solution will only be found when the school district stops challenging the right of the charter school to exist. The standards used for gauging the population of a charter school have to relate to the standards of the community in which it operates. Some LASD people are a bit sensitive because while their elementary school district contains only 4% low income students, it borders on a separate district of about the same size where >50% of the students come from low income families. Worse still, the 2 come together to be the sole feeds to a single high school district. The county grand jury has recommended consolidating all 3 districts into a single Unified school district, and this would promote a more equitable setup for the students involved.
Comment by Darrin Roode - October 1, 2013
When you think that the elementary school district is on track to spend well over $6 million dollars in attempt to escape sharing equivalent facilities with the charter school, the waste of public dollars is shocking. The district spent a good sum of this money contesting the 2011 appeal court ruling all he way to the California Supreme Court. Regardless of how wealthy a student population may be, they are entitled to the legacy of the public school facilities in their charter school. In this case, the quibble is that perhaps there is a 5-10% variation in the AVERAGE of the income of the charter school parents compared to that of the district. The district itself operates schools with a wide variation and in the case of the lowest income level to the highest there are district schools where the income level is probably double from one to the other.
Comment by LASD Taxpayer - October 1, 2013
Interesting article. I think that there are a few more key facts to consider. 1. LASD schools actually operate as private schools for a large portion of the school day. School gets out early after a short day - around 2 pm - after that families have to pay to stay. Various vendors offer expensive courses to LASD families. Quite a difference from the charter school which school day last an hour longer. The Charter school also offers before and after school enrichment programs free of charge. The programs are taught by BCS teachers, not outside vendors, allowing after school programs to dovetail with classroom instruction. In fact students at BCS actually have 21 more days of instruction/year compared to their peers in LASD schools. 2. LASD decided to close the last remaining school in Los Altos Hills after it spent huge amounts of money reopening a closed school that happened to contain the district offices. The closed school was located in a neighborhood that already three other neighborhood schools. Many people feel that one of their main motivations was to obtain a new district office facility. 3. While Mr. Smith claims that neighborhood schools are the driving principle of the district, the district really only operates schools for the central Los Altos core. Students in Mountain View and Los Altos Hills travel great distances to reach their neighborhood schools. In 2007 the district reopened the closed Los Altos Hills School and named it Gardner Bullis ( confusing isn't it?) then shifted an entire schools population away from their current neighborhood schools. Some Santa Rita Students were sent to the new school in Los Altos Hills - forcing them to cross busy Foothill Expressway. Another group of Santa Rita students from Mountain View was moved to Covington which was much further away than Santa Rita. A much better solution would have been to place the charter school at the new Los Altos Hills school. Unfortunately the LASD board doesn't operate according to Logic.
Comment by who wants them - October 1, 2013
Are we seriously trying to outbrag each other by claiming a higher # of Spanish ESL. Who wants them in the first place? Using this debate for social re-engineering is wrong. Join a commune if that's what you want; smoke some medical marijuana; get the federal government open again. There are more causes for you over-educated, too rich for your own good, Los Altos townies. As a resident of a central CA town, we watch this whole LASD-Bullis affair no differently than an episode of Real Housewives or Survivor. You people are truly pathetic trying to out ghetto each other when your W-2's are through the roof.
Comment by Joan J. Strong - October 2, 2013
The "bad faith" lie is another example of how this private corporation, wielding an implied threat of disrupting a family's life, can enforce "talking points" on their customers like the one above. There was no evidence of bad faith in the record and the court specifically said there wasn't, going out of their way to explain that, although the difference in measurement could LOOK LIKE bad faith, in fact it wasn't so the court made no such ruling. BCS supporters won't tell you that though. They lie a lot so they can keep their segregated school. The Appeal was over shrubbery and useless hillsides which LASD did not count since BCS was only given pristine usable land at the time. Now they get their fair share of shrubbery and useless hillsides. All for only $3 million in legal fees.
Comment by Los Altos mom - October 2, 2013
One data point to consider is the exodus of families from Santa Rita and Almond to Bullis this year. The movement is indicative that BCS is fulfilling a need in the community for an alternative school with a different methodology and teachers. It's a personal choice. Talking with families that have made the switch from LASD to BCS, they seem very happy and their kids are thriving. I'm happy for them. I've heard both sides of the story, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As a LASD parent, I admit that we have been disappointed with our kid's teachers, so I truly understand the need for an alternative. In the last two years, I volunteered frequently in the classroom. My child's kindergarten teacher was burnt out after 25+ years of teaching. No passion but tenure. I was hoping it would improve the next year. Unfortunately, the 1st grade teacher was terribly unorganized and depended too heavily on the parents to do her job. She asked for 1-5 parents to volunteer everyday in her class. She was young but unorganized and ineffective. After witnessing this for two years, I do not judge any parent who makes the personal decision to switch schools, whether it is private or public or charter. A parent has to do what allows them to sleep at night. Lastly, it's unfortunate that the battle, trophied by Michelle Sturiale in LASDvoices, discourages the LASD and BCS teachers from collaborating to improve both programs.
Comment by Nancy Ginsburg Gill - October 2, 2013
As an education consultant and writer who has followed the BCS saga since this sad story began, I'm impressed with the balance and clarity of this article. However, I want to make a point that is implied but not clearly stated. When my children went to the original Bullis school in the 1980s, every year a few parents would approach the principal and make offers like the following: "This school really needs a science [or music or PE] specialist. I'll be happy to donate the money to hire one so Bullis students can have a specialist teaching this subject" The principal would then tell them that such contributions had to be made to the district foundation and shared among all the schools; otherwise schools in the wealthy part of the community would have a more enriched program than the other schools. Invariably the parent lost interest in donating the money. Three years ago, I attended a BCS open house for prospective parents interested in entering the lottery. One of Wanny Hersey's big selling points was especially disturbing: "Just think, all the money you donate to BCS stays here. It doesn't have to be shared with other schools in the district like donations to LASD are." I hope state policy makers will realize the danger of allowing affluent parents to split off from districts to establish charter schools so that all donations get directed only to their children's school. Establishing quasi-private schools was not the intention of the original charter movement.
Comment by Darrin Roode - October 2, 2013
When you think that the elementary school district is on track to spend well over $6 million dollars in attempt to escape sharing equivalent facilities with the charter school, the waste of public dollars is shocking. The district spent a good sum of this money contesting the 2011 appeal court ruling all he way to the California Supreme Court. Regardless of how wealthy a student population may be, they are entitled to the legacy of the public school facilities in their charter school. In this case, the quibble is that perhaps there is a 5-10% variation in the AVERAGE of the income of the charter school parents compared to that of the district. The district itself operates schools with a wide variation and in the case of the lowest income level to the highest there are district schools where the income level is probably double from one to the other.
Comment by Sanity Check - October 2, 2013
Los Altos is in a county with 500,000 school children, of whom half are low income as defined by qualifying for free and reduced price lunches. It is home to some of the wealthiest residents of that county. Alongside it sites Los Altos Hills. It is also home to some of the wealthiest residents of that county. Alongside that is Mountain View which is more representative. But the wealthiest portion of Mountain View has also been carved off and lumped together with most of the other two cities into its own school district. This 5000 student elementary school district is arguable the top 1% of the 500,000 students in the county. Let's squabble about disadvantaged discrimination within this top 1%, shall we?
Comment by Pro choice - October 3, 2013
School choice is here to stay. The well to do charter parents have chosen to keep their children separate from the less desirable children and they are more than willing to pay dear sums for the privilege. Trying to claw back this privilege will be bloody. Segregation sells. Same game different decade.
Comment by Another Fact - October 4, 2013
In this case, the incumbent school district keeps the charter school for 10 years in portable buildings crammed together on an unused area of a Jr High Campus, bordering a major roadway. The so called rich kids have a lousy school campus. This makes the school less desirable, but especially to the few low income immigrants who live nearby. They are attracted by the very much nicer elementary campus a quarter mile away. So the charter school has repeatedly asked the incumbent school district to allow it to participate in the introductory sessions for kindergarten parents at that elementary school to present their program. The target is the immigrant parents who are not given all the facts about the program. They are willing even to present in Spanish. But the incumbent school district refuses to allow this. Now, who is resposible for this so called segregation?
Comment by Another Fact - October 4, 2013
In this case, the incumbent school district keeps the charter school for 10 years in portable buildings crammed together on an unused area of a Jr High Campus, bordering a major roadway. The so called rich kids have a lousy school campus. This makes the school less desirable, but especially to the few low income immigrants who live nearby. They are attracted by the very much nicer elementary campus a quarter mile away. So the charter school has repeatedly asked the incumbent school district to allow it to participate in the introductory sessions for kindergarten parents at that elementary school to present their program. The target is the immigrant parents who are not given all the facts about the program. They are willing even to present in Spanish. But the incumbent school district refuses to allow this. Now, who is resposible for this so called segregation?
Comment by Yon Kers - October 6, 2013
Article is very well done and interesting, also the comments. The one ability of Bullis to make decisions w/o interference of burdensome regulations and union rules is the difference that would lift all schools nationwide. This freedom from curiculums directed towards lower expectations and higher graduation rates would allow the educators to create and teach for higher achievement and educational growth.
Comment by Parent - October 6, 2013
A few points in response to comments: 1. All of the schools in the district have portable classrooms. Some of the campuses are 50% portables. 2. There are many families who have left BCS and have returned to LASD schools but are fearful to tell their stories publicly. Our school has several new families who were at BCS last year. 3. This year BCS accepted the facilities offer, then sued to overturn it and lost. The court has ruled that the facilities are compliant with Prop 39 but BCS supporters and BCS Board members still argue the facilities are not compliant.
Comment by Tony Lima - October 6, 2013
Terribly biased article. Lisa did not mention that Bullis-Purissima was closed after being promised renovation under a bond issue. LASD mismanaged the renovations so badly that there was no money left to renovate elementary schools (including two construction projects at Covington that were not included in the original bond issue). Anyone who is interested in this sordid history from a reasonably balanced viewpoint should read the timeline at LosAltosPolitico.com (http://losaltospolitico.com/bcs-vs-lasd/bullis-charter-school-history-timeline-of-the-genesis/). Under the law, BCS is a legally formed and operated institution. If some LASD parents and board members don't like that, they should work to change the state law, not continue to harass BCS. There is nothing in current law that restricts charter schools to low-income or low-achieving schools. And, if LASD wanted jurisdiction over BCS, all they had to do was grant the charter ten years ago. They declined to do this, meaning their only remaining authority is to follow the law and provide equivalent facilities. I invite those interested to read the transcripts of the two most recent meetings between LASD and BCS representatives, also available at LosAltosPolitico.com.
Comment by Mel Cohen - October 7, 2013
Yep, BCS is not the best school for everyone. Sometimes people leave and return to LASD schools. That is what choice is all about. Before BCS the only choice in Los Altos was private school. The neighboring districts, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Cupertino all offer magnet school programs. LASD never has. The truth is that many, many, many more families leave LASD schools every year for BCS than the reverse. BCS is now the largest elementary school in the district.
Comment by Mel Cohen - October 7, 2013
In several places you mention the intent of the charter law,,, " A national movement originally designed to provide an alternative to failing public schools in low-income areas, charters are increasingly cropping up in wealthier suburbs as a way to create elite institutions that operate with public funds yet are not subject to most of the statutory and union-contract requirements to which public schools must adhere. In these contexts, "school choice" becomes the ability to upgrade" It's not really upgrading so much as it avoiding the stagnation that Union run schools impose on their students. The charter law is not about rich or poor, it's about creating better education opportunities for all students. Also we should be clear that this not a rich vs poor battle. Just about everyone in the Los Altos School District is rich, by any standard. Also LASD tends to draw attendance boundaries for schools along property value lines. With average home values varying quite a bit. The lowest end schools have a median around 1.3 million. Two of the LASD schools have medians close to 3 million. Santa Rita has the largest range in property values. Ms. Sturiale's neighborhood, directly north of the Santa Rita Campus, has a median home value above 4 million. In any case, the charter law doesn't really say anything about the economic status of students here is the text of the law: It is the intent of the Legislature...to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure, as a method to accomplish all of the following: (a) Improve pupil learning. (b) Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving. (c) Encourage the use of different and innovative teaching methods. (d) Create new professional opportunities for teachers, including the opportunity to be responsible for the learning program at the school site. (e) Provide parents and pupils with expanded choices in the types of educational opportunities that are available within the public school system. (f) Hold the schools established under this part accountable for meeting measurable pupil outcomes, and provide the schools with a method to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability systems. (g) Provide vigorous competition within the public school system to stimulate continual improvements in all public schools. Ed. Code §47601(a)-(g).
Comment by LASD Observor - October 8, 2013
The Los Altos schools do have portable buildings at each school, but there is no school with more than 20% of its operations housed in portables. One school has 500 students and 50,000 square feet of built-on-site space. Even it has a few portables on the spacious 15 acre campus, but that's because the same site is also housing the district offices, which are in a spacious combination of constructed and portable buildings. Each of the elementary school sites and one Jr High also serve as the home to private preschool/daycare operations. These are housed in portables but they are not part of the actual school operations. Fees are charged for anyone who wants to use the services of the private operations on the school sites. A couple of the schools have portable multi purpose rooms at their site. They will use portable buildings to house their computer lab, their art classroom, their music classroom, their science classroom, a room where the PTA can work on the school site. This is true. One grade level 4 classrooms housing 20-25 students each might be in a portable cluster depending on the location, but the other 6 grades at that school will be in constructed rooms, as will the school offices, the teacher workroom, the teacher lounge, the data center/wiring room, the nurse's office, the school library, most of the multipurpose rooms, etc. Several schools even have a staged affixed to the edge of a building, which opens onto a paved outdoor assembly area. None of these fancy stage areas are on portable buildings.
Comment by Joan J. Strong - October 9, 2013
I started my comments here with the BCS attack on local democracy, and I'll end it with that. All you need to do is take a step back from this conflict to see how destructive laws which attempt to override local democracy can be. This was once a very nice, harmonious community. No more. Lawmakers should end county and state-level charter school authorization. Let local communities decide for themselves what sort of schools they want, and let them own their own problems. The current laws allow anybody with money for lawyers--be it some rich people like BCS or a for-profit corporation--to start a war in a community and tear it apart. This needs to stop.
Comment by Corey Drawyer - October 9, 2013
"I started my comments here with the BCS attack on local democracy, and I'll end it with that. " - I bit pretentious, aren't you? I didn't read the rest of it, I am sure it's the same old lies and misinformation with a touch of class warfare and rah rah teacher's union with a tip of your hat to our corrupt local school district along support and love for mob rule. Please feel free to continue, at least it keeps you in front of computer and away from the schools.
Comment by Mortimer Strong - October 9, 2013
We cannot use some kind of backwoods definition of local democracy to permit an affluent community to disobey the laws of the state. This community raises $3M per year in contributions to its local foundation, another $2.5 Million per year in contribution to its 9 school PTA's, $10 Million per year in local parcel taxes. It receives $33 Million per year in property tax revenue to educate only 5000 students. Many school districts in the state have to get by on just $6000 per student, but not this school district. Yet, when 600 students from this area elect to attend an innovative charter school, and these students are drawn from all 10 schools of the district, there are those who get upset. These 600 students get funded by the district at just $6000 each, so the district spends less of its $46 Million in funding on them than it does on the others. But people like the last comment are sure that the local will is paramount to not have charter schools IN THEIR COMMUNITY BECAUSE it is TOO affluent. Hogwash.
Comment by Davey Roode - October 13, 2013
This charter raises well over $3M each year in parent donations for their single school. In addition they have over $7M of parent contributed money that has never been used other than to pay for high priced lawyers while this money was supposed to be used for building a school facility, at least that is what they told their parents. Not to mention their curriculum and staff is setup not able to handle the more costly severe special Ed students that LASD pays a premium for, so these kids are naturally discouraged from applying and save BCS a lot in per student expenses. LASD receives most of its funding from parcel taxes and very very little from the state. That alone is not enough to fund the level of education the parents around here require. BCS receives a lot of funding from the state in addition to the large yearly donation from parents. When you separate out existing LASD overhead expenses that BCS does not have and break it down to the amount of instruction time delivered, BCS is in fact generating well more per student than LASD. I don't see anything wrong with the amount of parent donated funding to pay for critically needed materials and teachers.
Comment by LASD Observor - October 14, 2013
The Los Altos schools do have portable buildings at each school, but there is no school with more than 20% of its operations housed in portables. One school has 500 students and 50,000 square feet of built-on-site space. Even it has a few portables on the spacious 15 acre campus, but that's because the same site is also housing the district offices, which are in a spacious combination of constructed and portable buildings. Each of the elementary school sites and one Jr High also serve as the home to private preschool/daycare operations. These are housed in portables but they are not part of the actual school operations. Fees are charged for anyone who wants to use the services of the private operations on the school sites. A couple of the schools have portable multi purpose rooms at their site. They will use portable buildings to house their computer lab, their art classroom, their music classroom, their science classroom, a room where the PTA can work on the school site. This is true. One grade level 4 classrooms housing 20-25 students each might be in a portable cluster depending on the location, but the other 6 grades at that school will be in constructed rooms, as will the school offices, the teacher workroom, the teacher lounge, the data center/wiring room, the nurse's office, the school library, most of the multipurpose rooms, etc. Several schools even have a staged affixed to the edge of a building, which opens onto a paved outdoor assembly area. None of these fancy stage areas are on portable buildings.
Comment by Sonya Sigler - October 21, 2013
It's unfortunate that the author did not choose to actually evaluate the state of charter school law in this article. After all, the article appears in California Lawyer, not a charter school themed publication. LASD chose to decline granting a charter to BCS. Twice. The county agreed to charter the school, yet LASD is still obligated to provide facilities - that is the law. Still. Yet, as far as I can tell, LASD wants to provide facilities that fundamentally mess with the K-8 program of BCS. The author missed an opportunity to evaluate Prop 39 and what it means to charter schools who don't have a good working relationship with their district. Seems like LASD is following the letter of the law (provide facilities) but not the spirit of the law (facilities that are "reasonably equivalent" to other facilities for other schools in the same district). Too many games can be played with calculating classroom and non classroom space, in-district, and out of district kids, etc. That would have been a much more interesting article. The author also trots out the same old FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about charter schools - creaming the best students form the school district, and fundraising for BCS as taking money out of the pockets of LASD. But it fails to address the necessity of fundraising at BCS (or other charter schools) when the charter school gets $6,000 per student while the District gets $10,000 per student (which includes parcel tax $ that the charter school doesn't get, even though this $ includes taxes from parents whose children attend BCS). Charter schools exist because parents want choice no matter what their income level is or what their student test scores are in that district.

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