Anxiety and fears dominated the Mountain View Whisman School District board meeting Thursday night, as a sharply divided crowd of parents, students and community members gave impassioned testimony about the creation of a new charter school in the district.
A majority of the rapid-fire comments -- each person was given only one minute to speak -- either called for an outright rejection of Bullis Charter School's proposal to open a new 320-student school in Mountain View, or made a direct plea to charter school leaders to at least delay opening the school for another year.
Students, parents and employees of Bullis Charter School's flagship campus in Los Altos also showed up at the Dec. 6 meeting in full force, trumpeting what they described as a top-quality education with project-based learning, individualized instruction and "focused learning goals" that would be a boon for families in Mountain View seeking an alternative to district schools.
In September, Bullis Charter School officially announced its first foray outside of the Los Altos School District after 14 years there. It established an offshoot, dubbed Bullis Mountain View (BMV), which submitted a request to open a charter school in Mountain View Whisman next fall.
The goal of the school, according to BMV leaders, is to attract underserved families -- low-income students and students who speak English as a second language -- and extend what they describe as a tried-and-true education model. The goal is for a student body where 35 to 40 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, which is a big divergence from the affluent families Bullis Charter School has served in Los Altos since 2004.
Founding BMV board member Clara Roa said she has been working towards "replicating" Bullis Charter School since 2017, and that she believes students of all backgrounds deserve options for their public education. Wealthy families can opt for private school, but low-income families don't get those same opportunities, she said.
"Parents are empowered when they know they have a choice for their kids' education," Roa said. "Choice options should not be available only to people with the financial or personal resources to access them."
But for some parents, Bullis simply doesn't have a track record to show it can support families of modest means, and it's an open question whether it will even attract students from the demographics groups that charter school proponents claim it will serve.
Parent Julie Rapoport said she has little doubt that the school will offer a great education for the students it serves, but there's no guarantee it will attract or retain the district's most vulnerable kids. She said Bullis Charter School has opportunities to help students across the district by offering support at Mountain View Whisman schools and assisting with programs that already exist, rather than pulling resources away from existing schools.
"Work collaboratively with us," she said. "This doesn't feel like collaboration, this feels like hijacking the resources of a school district with 5,000 students to provide a specialized education for a small group, with no guarantee of serving anyone but students who already have significant resources."
Throughout the meeting, parents lamented that BMV's leadership wants to move so quickly. While expansion has been a goal of Bullis Charter School for several years, the official announcement about opening up in Mountain View came out in September, rapidly followed by a charter petition submitted to the school district in October. The final date to either approve or deny the petition is set for Dec. 20, and it's up to BMV to decide whether to push the date back.
The goal is to open a charter school in Mountain View by fall 2019, with initial enrollment of 168 students in transitional kindergarten through second grade.
Fall 2019 also happens to be the same year Mountain View Whisman's new attendance boundaries go into effect, and when a new school -- Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary -- opens its doors for the Whisman neighborhood. New intradistrict transfer policies are also set to take effect. How many students will be at each school next fall is undergoing a review by demographers hired by the district, but the worry is some schools may see a huge drop in enrollment.
Amy Rhoads, a parent of students at Bubb and Graham, said at the meeting that it doesn't feel like anyone is prepared for a charter school to open in just 246 days, and that BMV can show it takes the spirit of collaboration seriously if it heeded the advice of parents and district administrators and delayed the opening of the school.
"I think that the Bullis Mountain View team has very good intentions," she said. "I think that we have great schools here, and we're not ready to take on our very first charter. So I ask Bullis, please, please consider, at the very least, pushing your opening so that we can collaborate."
One pervasive sticking point that left parents uneasy was whether Bullis had a genuine interest in serving low-income and Latino families in Mountain View, and if the charter petition was crafted with this target demographic in mind. Given the long runway the charter school had to create the 645-page proposal, some speakers felt the outreach to Latino families in recent months felt like a cynical effort to "sell" the school and collect signatures for the petition rather than a chance to solicit feedback and shape the future school.
"I'm really worried about the lack of communication with the Hispanic population before the petition was presented to the board," said parent Tania O'Connell, who spoke in English and Spanish. "Bullis has been planning its expansion for years, but it only approached our community in the last few months, and only to present their program and ask for signatures of support, not to analyze our needs."
These concerns were expressed in a letter signed by a group of PTA leaders from throughout the district earlier this week. The letter warned that BMV was poised to "siphon off" wealthy families and higher-performing students away from neighborhood schools, creating more segregation and reducing the wherewithal of the district and individual PTAs to provide support for needy students.
At the Thursday meeting, Mistral PTA president Sara Kopit-Olson told BMV officials they could still "earn the trust" of the community by proving they are acting in good faith to help disadvantaged students, provided they slow down. The charter school could conduct a rigorous needs assessment involving teachers, PTA members and other district committees, she said, and avoid making it seem like a rush-job.
"Our community has been given a ridiculously short amount of time to evaluate this proposal and the potential ramifications to our schools," Kopit-Olson said. "It's like you're riding into town on a steamroller, and it doesn't look or feel good."
An inevitable outcome?
A big question facing the school board, and many of the public speakers, was whether support or opposition to the charter school really amounted to anything.
The prevailing legal opinion is that the cards are stacked in favor of charter schools in California. Individual school districts have very little ability to deny a charter petition that is appropriately written, clearly lays out the school's academic program and shows it can be financially solvent in the coming years. What's more, Bullis Charter School in Los Altos has a sterling reputation as one of the highest-performing schools in the state, and much of that school's philosophy would be adopted in BMV.
State law allows charter schools three chances to get approval. If the Mountain View Whisman School District denies the charter, it would almost assuredly be appealed to the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which would again have to consider the charter school on its merits with the same stacked standard for approval. If the county board opts to deny the petition -- seen by many as a very unlikely possibility -- it could be appealed a third time, to the state Board of Education.
Barring some type of major deficiency in the petition, the default option is to approve the charter petition, said Janelle Ruley, an attorney with the law firm Young, Minney & Corr representing BMV. Rooting out a disqualifying flaw would be difficult: As someone who has represented charter schools for more than a decade, she said Bullis is one of the strongest and most well-run charter schools that the district will ever encounter.
"At the end of the day, when we reconvene in just two short weeks to make a decision on this, we will be left with a straightforward mandate of the law," Ruley said. "Which first reminds us that the intent of the legislature is that charters have become an integral part of our educational system and that their establishment shall be encouraged."
Some parents, including Mountain View resident Serge Bonte, encouraged board members to approve the charter regardless of their personal feeling towards Bullis, saying that the fight needs to play out in Sacramento rather than a local school board meeting. Former Los Altos School District trustee Doug Smith didn't mince his words, and said the district should approve "any viable charter" that comes before them. The district would benefit by retaining some oversight responsibilities over BMV if its own school board approves the charter. Denying it and allowing the county to approve the school amounts to giving up any semblance of control, he said.
"At that point you have zero oversight of that school, you have no ability to enforce any promises that were made or any representations that were made during the application process," Smith said.
That wasn't enough of an incentive to convince Monta Loma parent Isaac Taylor, who urged the board to "be brave" and reject the petition, even if it eventually gets overruled. He said the school has been, and will continue to be, an option to benefit the wealthy, and that rhetoric about "collaboration" falls flat when the charter school forces the school district to do something it doesn't want.
"If Bullis says they've worked with the community to shape their plans or curriculum, they're lying," he said. "If someone takes our money and school property away from us, against our will, that's not 'educating a whole student,' it's stealing. Bullis is an Amway scam -- it only benefits the already rich, and it's a ripoff for anyone else."
A group of parents from the North Bay saw the public hearing as a chance to air their grievances about a charter school in the Ross Valley School District, and the division and problems they say it brought to the community. Parent Sara Tewksbury warned that accepting BMV would be a "road to ruin" and diminish the district's resources, and said it's a fallacy to think that the district would get any real local control from approving the charter.
Heather Bennett, also from Ross Valley, said her community has been divided by their charter school, and that it's a microcosm of a much larger, national fight against the privatization of schools.
"Charter school are built with the bricks and mortar of the public schools they tear apart," she said. "Don't just roll over and allow this charter into your district because you think its inevitable. Once they get a foothold, it will be much harder to get rid them."
Facing the real possibility that the school board's hands may be tied, several parents at the meeting began addressing their comments directly to the Bullis Charter School supporters with pleas to drop or at least delay the plans for a charter school next year.
"I'm talking to you because our hands are tied," Rapoport said, turning from the school board. "We're powerless, based on what Doug (Smith) said. If you are truly interested in serving the (socio-economically disadvantaged) population, then please work with us to support, strengthen and augment the programs we already have."
Mountain View Whisman school board members steered clear of taking a stand for or against the charter school during the public hearing, instead taking the opportunity to grill BMV leaders on how, if the charter petition is approved, they would be held accountable for meeting its goals. The petition states English learners will be proficient in the language as "quickly as possible," which is not very meaningful, said board member Ellen Wheeler.
The petition goes on to say that state-standardized test scores at BMV will "exceed" scores achieved by district schools with a similar demographic, which Wheeler said was also unclear.
"One rational for BMV is to show higher academic success via test scores than our own school district, so I think it's important for us to understand what you understand to be a meaningful success rate for your students compared to ours," she said.
Board member Tamara Wilson questioned the charter school's outreach efforts to date, and whether the school will reach the demographics it claims it will. She said her email correspondence to date shows that many of the people supporting the charter school are highly educated, high-tech employees, but she hasn't heard from a single Spanish-speaking family. That doesn't bode well, given that 80 percent of the district's low-income students are Latino, she said.
Wilson also questioned why BMV appears to have dragged its feet in reaching out to the district's PTAs, particularly after so many of them spoke out at the public hearing and in the letter earlier this week.
"Why, just this week, have you reached out to our PTAs if the spirit of collaboration is the cornerstone of the charter petition?" she asked.
Jennifer Anderson-Rosse, BMV's head of school, said she had reached out to some PTA members in the past, but the recent groundswell of opposition led her team to reach out to every PTA in Mountain View Whisman as a way to hear their concerns.
The lines of communication, particularly with the Latino community, are bound to improve once the charter petition receives approval, Anderson-Rosse said. Once approved for its inaugural five-year charter, BMV will hire a recruiter whose sole job will be to increase enrollment applications among low-income and minority families. There won't be much time between charter approval and open enrollment -- only about 5 weeks -- but Anderson-Rosse said she is hopeful that will be enough time for BMV to hit its goal.
The Mountain View Whisman School District expects to hold a special meeting on Dec. 20 to either approve or deny the charter petition.