Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School appear to be as close as they've ever been to compromise. However, comments made by district and charter officials and a recent exchange of open letters make it clear that there is still a long way to go.
The two organizations are planning to meet on Oct. 30 to discuss the possibility of working together on a school bond measure that would build two new schools -- one which would become a permanent site for Bullis and another for an as-yet-unnamed LASD school. Yet, while officials with BCS have expressed tentative support for the idea, they have also expressed significant reservations over the proposal.
John Phelps, a charter school board member, said he has wondered whether the district isn't simply setting up the bond to fail as part of some elaborate straw man scheme. Phelps said his misgivings are informed by a number of things -- including the district's history of taking his school to court over issues he considers either trivial or made up, and because of the way the district has been framing the bond.
Phelps and fellow BCS board member Joe Hurd, said they are concerned with the way the bond is being presented to the public. According to Hurd, some are already referring to the proposed bond as a "Bullis bond," which he said gives the impression that the initiative is being put forward solely for the benefit of the charter school. Given that the community is deeply divided over BCS, presenting the bond this way will only serve to ensure that it does not get the support it needs to pass.
"This is not about building a brand-new, shiny school just for Bullis," Hurd said. "This is about making the pie bigger for everyone."
The way Hurd sees it, Bullis Charter School has always been a part of the district. As a charter school organized within LASD's boundaries and drawing mostly on children from within the district, Hurd said Bullis has been unfairly painted as an outsider by those who oppose its existence.
Some of Hurd and Phelp's reservations were reflected in a recent open letter from the charter school to LASD. In the Oct. 10 letter, Bullis outlined its position on the bond. The letter, signed by BCS board chair Ken Moore, declared that the charter school sees the proposed bond as a possible road to acceptable compromise. However, the letter continued, "BCS does not seek to be the major beneficiary of a new school bond, and we would not support a bond positioned that way."
Doug Smith, president of the LASD board of trustees, has said he understands and even shares some of Hurd's concerns. If the bond is to pass, Smith said, a large portion of the community will have to get behind it, and that means that the "optics" of the bond and what it is for are very important.
Smith said he wants the bond to pass, and is very concerned with making sure people understand that the proposal is not just about Bullis, but about the improving the district. The district is in need of more space, according to Smith. The LASD student population has ballooned of late, and district's seven elementary and two junior high schools are overcrowded.
While it is true that the district is seeking to add a new school to deal with its growing student body, Smith said the fact is that the district is also taking BCS into consideration with the bond. "To so say that we're not building a school for Bullis is deceptive to the public," Smith said.
Whatever inherent suspicions Bullis officials might have concerning the district's sincerity were only exacerbated by an open letter issued by LASD in response to Bullis' Oct. 10 letter.
The LASD communication, sent on Oct. 16 and signed by Smith, thanked the charter school's leadership for agreeing to explore the possibility of a joint school bond. However, the letter also chastised the charter for allegedly violating the Facilities Use Agreement with the district, a charge Hurd denied.
Hurd said the letter struck him as contradictory, in that it simultaneously extended a hand of negotiation toward his organization while also threatening a lawsuit.
While Smith told the Voice he was encouraged by the charter school's willingness to discuss a potential school bond, Hurd struck a much more hesitant tone.
"LASD can't make up its mind whether it wants to work together or fight," Hurd said. "If you want to work together, then work with us and gain support for a bond that will benefit all LASD residents equally. If you want to fight, continue making unfounded allegations that BCS is in violation of the Facilities Use Agreement -- which it is not."
In response to Hurd's comments, Smith said he is genuinely hopeful about the prospect of the bond. He acknowledged that his district and BCS have "significant differences in what it takes to pass a bond," but said he believes that overall the organizations agreement to talk was a sign of "wonderful progress."
Phelps struck a similar, albeit more cautious tone. "We're fully enthusiastic about supporting the bond as long as it's not a Bullis bond primarily," he said. "The overt hostility needs to come to a close if this district intends to peacefully resolve this matter."