The discord between Everest (charter) Public High School and the Sequoia Union High School District took a turn for the worse last week after Sequoia board President Don Gibson, with the help of the district's public affairs officer, wrote a personal opinion intended for publication in The Almanac that reportedly mischaracterized the school.
The opinion leaked data obtained in confidence from Everest about student enrollment. Mr. Gibson also leaked the data to the two school board candidates endorsed by Sequoia board members.
He later withdrew his letter at the request of board member Olivia Martinez, who had obtained the information in delicate negotiations with Everest co-founder Diane Tavenner.
It's the latest incident in a catalog of district efforts to prevent the school from opening in Redwood City this school year. Everest, which has sued the district over its offer of facilities in East Palo Alto, is sister to popular Summit Preparatory Charter High School. Both were heavily over-subscribed in the spring.
The Sequoia district pays Everest about $6,700 per student. Ms. Martinez's negotiation provided Sequoia with a snapshot that included Everest's out-of-district student population. To recoup funding for such students, Sequoia must arrange for reimbursement from their home districts.
Enrollment data is typically made public through the school's sponsor in January, Ms. Tavenner said. Everest's sponsor is the state Board of Education.
In his letter, Mr. Gibson claimed that Everest, as late as July, was "still scrambling for students" and opened with "just 90 students who actually live in the district and, to reach the required 100 students to open, Everest enrolled students from outside the district."
In March, Everest had 325 applicants for its 100 freshman seats. Names not chosen became a waiting list from which names were drawn. Families chose other schools over the summer, given significant uncertainty as to whether Everest would open on schedule, but there was no "scrambling for students," Ms. Tavenner said.
Mr. Gibson's allegations are "a false, vicious and public attack on the school, its faculty, students and founders," she said.
Sequoia attorneys recently proffered settlement talks with Everest over the lawsuit, but upon learning of the content of Mr. Gibson's letter, Ms. Tavenner said she has cancelled all such talks.
Complicating the matter for the district is Mr. Gibson's claim that his letter, as well another that was recently published, were personal opinions. But he said he enlisted help from taxpayer funded district staff, including public affairs officer Bettylu Smith.
Ms. Smith edited Mr. Gibson's drafts on her computer, Mr. Gibson said in an interview, adding that he considered their efforts "collaborative writing." Ms. Smith did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
"I wrote the majority of it (and) I believe it's all fact," Mr. Gibson said, adding that he needed help to avoid complications associated with the Everest litigation and because he has dyslexia.
Superintendent Pat Gemma served as a reviewer, Mr. Gibson said. Mr. Gemma told The Almanac that he had read, but not commented on, several drafts, and was "aware of" Ms. Smith's participation.
Mr. Gibson said he withdrew the letter because Ms. Martinez "is in the process of trying to build a bridge with Diane, so I figured I wouldn't get in the way."
Mr. Gibson also admitted sending his latest letter to two of the eight candidates running for two open seats on the district board: Alan Sarver and Virginia Chang Kiraly, who noted Everest's out-of-district students in an interview with The Almanac.
Ms. Martinez, who described herself as "livid" over the matter, said she faults Mr. Gemma for the data's release. Mr. Gemma had no comment.
Mr. Gibson's passing of the numbers to Mr. Sarver and Ms. Kiraly was "unfortunate," Ms. Martinez said, adding that its only purpose should have been for preparing reimbursement claims.
She said she also considered it "inappropriate" for Ms. Smith and Mr. Gemma to be involved with Mr. Gibson's personal opinions. "Frankly, I hold the superintendent responsible for that," she added. "That was not something that he should have allowed and supported and encouraged, and in the end, he agreed" to withdraw Mr. Gibson's letter.
Mr. Gemma had no comment other than to say that he was "told" about intentions to withdraw the letter.
Of Everest's 106 freshmen, 16 do not live in the district. After 106 names were chosen by lottery in March, the remaining names became a waiting list.
Everest staff spent over 30 hours collecting student residency data for the Sequoia district, Ms. Tavenner said.
Everest Executive Director Jon Deane said the data was prepared "in a very urgent fashion," and that he now feels betrayed. "I feel that the district is sending us a clear message that they don't want to collaborate with us," he said.