An enrollment preference that would have given some families in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills higher priority when applying to enter Bullis Charter School has now been permanently removed.
The controversial preference gave priority to children residing within the so-called Bullis-Purissima school attendance boundaries, which straddle the two cities, in Bullis' highly competitive admissions lottery.
Los Altos School District officials, later joined by staff from the Santa Clara County Office of Education, said such a priority could give wealthier families an edge while stunting the charter school's enrollment of underserved students.
The preference was eliminated as of Dec. 26, and any mention of the geographic priority has been removed from enrollment information and materials, said Michelle Johnson, the county office's charter school director, at a public meeting last week. Reinstating the Bullis-Purissima preference in the future would require the "explicit approval" of the county Board of Education, Johnson said.
Bullis Charter School has a long history of giving priority admission to students residing in the attendance boundary of the former Bullis-Purissima Elementary School, which the Los Altos School District closed before reopening it years later as Gardner Bullis Elementary. The school district filed a suit to overturn the preference in 2008, claiming it was discriminatory, but the court ruled the school district had no jurisdiction to challenge it.
Bullis voluntarily phased out the priority through the 2019-20 school year as part of a five-year facilities agreement with the Los Altos School District, but district officials worried it would return after the deal officially expired in June last year. In a September letter to the county office of education, trustees argued reinstating the preference would give priority to the "wealthiest and least socioeconomically diverse area" within the district's boundaries while shutting out higher-needs students.
Responding to the school district's allegations, county Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan wrote a letter to the charter school stating there may be some truth to the district's argument.
"Based on information currently available to the county, at a minimum, the former Bullis-Purissima Elementary School attendance area appears to house a disproportionately low number of socio-economically disadvantaged students (and perhaps students with other protected characteristics)," Dewan wrote.
The county letter served as an ultimatum: Bullis would either have to drop what's known as "the hills preference" or provide a "thorough and complete explanation" as to why it wouldn't violate California Education Code requirements prohibiting discriminatory practices. One month later, Bullis Charter School board chair Joe Hurd replied that the preference is lawful and never resulted in discrimination, but that the school would nevertheless "suspend" the preference.
The action last month simply codifies that decision from October, according to Bullis spokesman Alan Simpson. The charter school's board of directors voted unanimously on the amended agreement with the county on Dec. 23.
LASD board president Bryan Johnson declined to comment, stating that the board hadn't reviewed the changes to the charter school's enrollment preferences at a public meeting.
Bullis Charter School's leadership had long valued the geographic priority as a "hard-won provision" of its charter, calling it an assurance that Los Altos Hills and parts of Los Altos would always have a public school, according to a June letter by charter school board member Francis La Poll. But the letter also made clear that the hills preference is seen as a bargaining chip, which can be reduced or eliminated in exchange for "tangible benefits" under facilities use agreements with the district.
"The BCS board understands that LASD may wish to extend the prior limitation to the preference to any future long-term agreement," La Poll wrote. "The BCS board expects that such extension will be part of the (facilities) negotiations between the two parties."
Bullis Charter School and the Los Altos district have had bitter, often litigious disputes during the last decade over whether the district had provided charter school students facilities that are "reasonably equivalent" to that of district students -- including classroom and outdoor space. Bullis has consistently asked for a single, consolidated school site centrally located in Los Altos, which representatives say would be ideal for serving students from all corners of the district.
The Los Altos School District's board of trustees pointed to the hills preference as just one part of a broader strategy by Bullis to allegedly discriminate against low-income students, English language learners and other underrepresented student groups. It claims students with disabilities who require significant resources, including those with autism, orthopedic impairments, intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbances, are discouraged from enrolling at Bullis and routed to the school district.
Charter school officials have denied wrongdoing, and point to similar demographic disparities between district-run schools. They also accuse district trustees of making inflammatory claims against the charter school amid negotiations over where to house the charter school over the next decade, which has been a divisive subject among district residents.
Despite the controversy and back-and-forth over geographic preferences, Bullis Charter School remains a popular choice among families in the area. The school received close to 400 applications for a little over 100 kindergarten spots for the upcoming school year, and held a lottery on Saturday, Jan. 18.