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Publication Date: Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Sequoia district to appeal charter school order Sequoia district to appeal charter school order (September 11, 2002)

** District will provide facilities in the interim.

By David Boyce

Almanac Staff Writer

The Sequoia Union High School District will appeal the August 30 court ruling that ordered it to provide classroom and other educational facilities for Aurora High School, a charter high school located in Redwood City, said Sequoia trustee Don Gibson.

But because the ruling by Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp overwhelmingly supported Aurora's position, the district, which includes Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high schools, will provide classroom space to Aurora while the appeal goes forward, Mr. Gibson said.

"We're doing this in good faith," Mr. Gibson said. "Rather than just say no, we're going to provide them space. ... We're not going to leave them hung out to dry."

"It would have been nice if they'd done that months ago," said Alice Miller, the chief financial officer at Aurora, upon learning of Mr. Gibson's comment. "We need space. That's what we asked for in the very beginning. If they're finally getting around to [providing it], that's good."

Aurora's students spent their first day of school on Monday in various locations, including the public library, and at the picnic tables and in the community center of Red Morton Park in Redwood City, Ms. Miller said. "We're kind of scattered today," she said on opening day.

The dance continues

Sequoia's decision to appeal is the latest round in the sometimes bitter confrontation between the district and charter high schools as they have attempted to define their relationship on uncertain legal terrain.

School districts and charter schools have been discovering complexity, and loopholes, in charter school regulations as they have tried to implement the schools -- which are public, but are permitted to ignore most of the state's education code provisions.

The court ruling had appeared to resolve some of the confusion by ordering Sequoia to honor facilities requests from the two existing and two planned charter high schools in the district. Sequoia's appeal may delay the resolution for more than a year, Mr. Gibson said.

"I guess we continue to dance," said Ms. Miller.

On another front, Sequoia has been facing the prospect of an immediate expense of about $1.36 million to support the district's current charter school students, with the potential of a $10 million annual expense by 2005.

If Gov. Gray Davis signs Assembly Bill 1100 into law, this funding responsibility would be reduced by 30 percent overall and would be phased in gradually over three years.

Site uncertain

With the court decision in Aurora's favor, the Sequoia district must now find a site for the school to conduct its classes. "Obviously, we're disappointed [in the court's decision]," said Lorraine Rumley, president of the Sequoia district's Board of Trustees.

Ms. Rumley said that the district's interim superintendent, Don Gielow, is evaluating school sites to determine whether facilities suitable for Aurora are available. "It may be more effective to lease a space," Ms. Rumley said.

But if campus space is available, Ms. Rumley is optimistic. "I personally think that once [charter school students] see our campuses, they're going to love it," she said. She predicted that the diverse student body, sports programs and other amenities of a traditional high school will attract the charter school students. "They'll switch from charter school to regular schools," she said.

Ms. Miller said she was surprised to hear that Sequoia was considering a place for Aurora on campus. "They've indicated in the past that they don't want us on campus," she said. With 92 students expected to enroll, Ms. Miller said they'd need five classrooms.

Diane Tavenner, the director of Summit Preparatory High School, a charter school scheduled to open in southern San Mateo County in September 2003, said she had expected the court to decide in Aurora's favor. "The legislation was fairly clear," she said, referring to the language of Proposition 39, approved by voters in November 2000.

Ms. Tavenner said Summit's management is undecided about whether to ask for facilities from Sequoia, but said she expects to make an announcement in a few weeks.

Gary Larson, spokesman for the California Network of Educational Charters, or CANEC, said his organization is pleased with the outcome of the lawsuit, but described it as a waste of money because the law was clear. "Everyone would have been much better served had this money [for attorney's fees] gone directly to the kids rather than to the lawyers," Mr. Larson said.

New legislation

Mr. Larson and CANEC also expressed satisfaction with AB 1100, introduced by Assemblyman Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, in February. "It protects the level at which charter schools are funded and provides a further incentive for basic-aid districts to look at charter schools as a means for education reform," Mr. Larson said.

Under Senate Bill 955, backed by the state's Department of Finance and signed into law last year by the governor, the Sequoia district would be required to take over 100 percent of the funding for students attending charter school. The law was declared unenforceable by the state Department of Education because certain parts of the law were unclear.

Mr. Simitian introduced AB 1100 in response to SB 955. Its clarifying language would moderate Sequoia's funding responsibility by easing it in over three years and capping it at 70 percent, with the state continuing to pay the remaining 30 percent.

At current funding levels, a 70 percent share would amount to about $3,780 per student. Mr. Larson called this legislation "a big win" for the district.

If the governor vetoes AB 1100, the Sequoia district may be required to take over full funding of charter high schools. Even if the bill is vetoed, however, districts like Sequoia are obligated to provide only the level of funding enjoyed by state-financed school districts, currently about $5,400 per student. Sequoia's traditional high schools currently receive about $7,100 per student.

Until a few months ago, Aurora was also receiving about $7,100 per student, with $5,400 coming from the state and about $1,700 voluntarily contributed by Sequoia.

In April, citing an "uncertain legislative environment," Sequoia ended its voluntary assistance by terminating its agreement with Aurora's sponsor, the Redwood City elementary school district.

E-mail David Boyce at [email protected]


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