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March 17, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Aurora High School plies troubled waters in seeking Sequoia charter Aurora High School plies troubled waters in seeking Sequoia charter (March 17, 2004)

** Sequoia high school district weighs petition.

By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer

Over its first five years, Aurora High School -- a small charter school located in Redwood City -- has suffered many indignities, including five relocations, teacher resignations, wavering enrollment, make-do classrooms in public parks and a lawsuit contesting the school's request for facilities from the local high school district.

It's likely that the approximately 80 students enrolled in the four-year program at Aurora, along with their parents and teachers, are hoping for less drama and more predictability over the next five years. But they have one problem: they need a sponsor to renew the charter allowing the school to operate.

The school's 1999 charter from the Redwood City Elementary School District expires at the end of June. Since state law now prohibits elementary school districts from chartering high schools, Aurora must seek a charter from the district from which most of its students are drawn: the Sequoia Union High School District, its opponent in court and the loser in the lawsuit.

Charter schools can be viewed as unwelcome competition by school districts, all of which are bound by the state's education code. Charter schools are public schools but are exempt from most of the education code so as to encourage innovation that will improve student learning, advance teaching methods and accountability, and stimulate competition.

"Aurora is unafraid of the challenge ... of friendly and mutually supportive competition," said Mark White, president of Aurora's board of directors in remarks to the Sequoia trustees on March 3.

Mr. White was joined in his efforts by two parents, two Aurora teachers, a student and a trustee from the Redwood City district.

Sequoia's skepticism

The appeal by Aurora's supporters was met with questions, often skeptical, from the Sequoia trustees. Trustee Gordon Lewin asked what Aurora plans to do about a projected reserve of only $12,985 at the end of the 2004-05 fiscal year. The amount represents about 2.3 percent of the school's annual budget. Traditional public schools are required by law to keep a 4 percent reserve.

Aurora also projects budget deficits for the current and next fiscal years. "I hope you'll show [us] how you'll eliminate the deficit," said Trustee Lorraine Rumley. "We make a lot of decisions on information and data. We need more data."

"We agree with you that financial solvency is critical," Mr. White said. He called Aurora's budgets conservative and "bare-bones" and said the school has not yet tapped other funding resources such as charitable foundations. He also predicted next year's enrollment would exceed the state minimum of 80 students, thereby increasing the per-student funding the school receives.

Don Gibson, the Sequoia board's president, reminded the petitioners of earlier projections of growth that did not materialize, then suggested that potential students are being drawn away by the three competing charter high schools in the district -- Summit Prep in Redwood City, East Palo Alto High School in Menlo Park, and San Carlos High School in San Carlos.

"Is there a market there for that kind of [enrollment] growth and are you going to get it?" Mr. Gibson asked.

Mr. White acknowledged that Aurora's average daily attendance has "remained flat" for five years, but that "these problems are part of Aurora's distant past." He noted the school's unattractiveness during those years, including the times when Aurora had no home and a several-month-long period when classes were taught simultaneously in one big noisy room.

Trustee Olivia Martinez offered some support. "It's important to understand that if we were to go forward with a charter, that would change everything in terms of public perception," she said to her colleagues. "We want it to be successful and we want to be part of that success."

The Sequoia trustees did not indicate when they would act on the charter petition. If Sequoia rejects it, Aurora can petition the county Board of Education and, if rejected, the state Board of Education.

Summit Prep -- which enrolled students from Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Woodside and Atherton -- is chartered by a school district in Tuolumne County and will have to go before the Sequoia trustees when its charter expires in 2005.

Aurora details

Aurora is now located at 656 Bair Island Road in Redwood City. The school has six teachers teaching three sections of English, math, Spanish and world studies, plus biology, physics and economics, according to its Web site. Several students from Menlo Park are enrolled, a school spokesperson said.

Aurora graduated 14 students in 2003, including 11 from the original 1999 class, Mr. White said in a statement. In 2004, 16 are expected to graduate, including three from the freshman class of 2000-01 and three who completed their coursework in three years, he said.

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