Los Altos Divided Over Charter School's Search For New Home

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Lillian Mongeau/KQED

Charter school expansions often put pressure on school districts to find them additional space. Bullis charter parents want equity with other district schools such as Blach Intermediate School, pictured here.

In the wealthy Silicon Valley suburb of Los Altos, the district schools are some of the best in the state. But ten years ago, when the Los Altos district closed a local elementary school, upset parents formed their own charter. Now that charter has grown so big, it needs a larger campus. The battle over space is creating a bitter rift in this otherwise tranquil community.
Christine Kani is pretty new to Los Altos. When she first moved to town, she decided to send her daughter to Bullis Charter School. The program just seemed like a good fit, she says.
“When I joined Bullis, I had no idea that it was going to be so divisive,” she said. “Perhaps I was naïve, but I think it’s really – it’s torn the community apart and it’s made it seem like, you have to lose for me to win.”
In fact, that’s exactly what it’s like. The charter school and the district are in a battle over a limited number of classrooms. Who sits in which classroom has become a matter of intense public teeth-gnashing. Noah Mesel has two children in the district public schools.
“The district has an obligation to all of the children who attend schools in the district, and the charter school leadership appears to want to put the children who attend the charter school in the front of the line,” Mesel said.
But the charter school is outgrowing its current digs. Bullis is housed in a set of portable classrooms.
“This school is growing in enrollment far faster than the district even with the inadequate facilities that are provided,” Bullis legal advisor and parent David Spector said. “If the district provided adequate facilities, it would be growing even faster.”
The district does have a legal obligation to provide the charter school with a “reasonably equivalent” campus. And as the charter school parents are quick to point out, the district has not met that standard. But that’s a high standard here where property values are astronomical. Schools are built on leafy 10-acre plots worth millions of dollars and are not easily replicable.
“There’s probably a perception outside of our district that this is just a bunch of rich people, kind of sniping at each other and fighting over lovely facilities, and why should we care?” said district parent Daryl Odnert.
Until last spring, Odnert himself was trying not to care. Then a committee formed to come up with a compromise suggested that his daughter’s campus be turned over to the charter. That was too much for him.
“If you have a school district that’s not performing well, then people should be able to create charter schools to compete with what the public schools are doing,” Odnert said. “But for another group to come along to a district where all the public schools are performing well, and to be able to use that same law, that just doesn’t feel right.”
Bullis Charter School Board Member Anne Marie Gallagher doesn’t buy that definition, though. “Do you believe that charter schools should only be allowed to be in a district with a certain threshold of API scores?” she asked. “That’s not what charter school law was designed to do.”
API scores are the number—based mostly on standardized test scores—that California assigns schools based on how well they’re doing. Both Bullis and Los Altos district schools score off the charts. This part of the argument is just one of many points of disagreement among Los Altos parents. The argument turns up everywhere you go in town. It’s gotten so bad that Kani decided to send her younger son to a district school just to avoid the controversy with the boy’s friends’ parents.
Los Altos Town Council Member Courtenay Corrigan has three sons at Bullis. “It has just dissolved,” she said. “It’s dissolved into sort of this real ugly, sand-throwing [match. It’s] even childish at times. It’s just been ugly.”
Agreeing to disagree is out. Neighbors have stopped talking to neighbors. Polite people don’t bring up their kids’ elementary school at dinner or cocktail parties. And people heading to the weekend farmer’s market leave their school sweatshirts at home.
This fall, a local church hosted a mediation session in hopes of building bridges between opposing sides. Church member and longtime Los Altos resident Jeanne MacVicar says the histrionics set a poor example for the community’s children.
“All I can think of when I see anything in the papers or hear anything is, I sing this song, "Teach Your Children Well",” MacVicar said. “And that’s what makes me sad.”
Last month, MacVicar’s husband was one of the people selected for a new committee made up of community members from all sides. They are to look at solutions to the facilities problem and may be looking as far out as Sunnyvale to find another school building they can use. Their primary goal is to find a solution that will allow the grown-ups to stop shouting, and the children to keep learning.
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