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Will Ravenswood push back against charter school expansion?

Parents, residents urge board against displacing district school

At a packed community meeting Tuesday night, Belle Haven parents, staff and residents urged the Ravenswood school board against uprooting any district school in order to provide space for an expanding public charter school, and some trustees indicated a desire to "fight" the charter's request.

The meeting at Belle Haven Elementary School in Menlo Park was the third of six meetings the board is holding to solicit community input on KIPP Valiant Community Prep's request for a long-term site to accommodate its growing enrollment. Public school districts are required under state Proposition 39 to make facilities available to charter schools to ensure all students have equal access.

Speakers spoke Tuesday in defense of Belle Haven and urged the board to keep KIPP at its current location at the contiguous Brentwood and Los Robles/McNair campuses, where the charter school has used shared space since it opened in 2017. They also pressed for more concrete data and voiced frustration that no specific proposals have been offered yet, limiting what they can provide feedback on.

"It really seems like we're uprooting a flowering plant and putting we don't quite know what to put in its place," said Andy Westhall, the father of two Belle Haven students.

Board President Tamara Sobomehin stressed the importance of the community meetings as a source of information for the five board members. The trustees will decide whether Belle Haven, Brentwood, Costaño or Willow Oaks will house KIPP starting this fall — unless they agree to pursue another path forward.

"I am gathering information so when we come together we can look at the facts ... and see what we can fight," Sobomehin said, "so we can give them a proposal that truly supports our students across our entire district.

"If you give them seven classrooms, if you give them 11, if you close a school — that's all displacing our students and I don't want to do that," she said. "I want to fight but also know there's a risk. Do we go to court?"

Trustee Sharifa Wilson was more openly critical of KIPP, which along with other charters, private schools and the Voluntary Transfer Program have contributed to declining enrollment and funding in Ravenswood. Just under 2,400 students are currently enrolled in the district, down by more than 1,000 from seven years ago.

Wilson urged parents to "organize against the expansion of charter schools," which she said "see this district as a great opportunity for them to wipe out the entire public school system."

At the suggestion of a community member, Vice President Stephanie Fitch said she has reached out to trustees in the Ross Valley School District. The K-8 Marin County district last year offered a charter school fewer facilities than requested, prompting a lawsuit from the charter and bitter public controversy.

A request for more space from Bullis Charter School in the nearby Los Altos school district also sparked tensions and the school board reluctantly provided the charter room at a third elementary school.

The tension between host school districts and charter schools is playing out across the state. On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom called on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to create a panel to study the impact of charter school growth on district finances.

Two current Ravenswood trustees — Wilson and Ana Maria Pulido — served on the board that approved KIPP's charter in 2016. Pulido cast the sole dissenting vote. Wilson reluctantly supported the charter at the time given that the school's petition met all the necessary legal requirements, warning that "the only way that we're going to prevent the district from being eaten alive by every charter school ... is to keep moving forward, which we're doing under this new superintendent," referring to Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff.

KIPP, which serves both East Palo Alto and Belle Haven students, anticipates enrolling 558 students this fall. Since securing its charter three years ago, KIPP has intended to grow each year to include eighth grade by 2021.

Maria Krauter, communications director for KIPP Bay Area Public Schools, said in a previous interview that the charter's "No. 1 preference" is for a long-term, single site where elementary and middle school students, many of them siblings, can attend school together.

Hernandez-Goff said district staff are still gathering more detailed information about school-by-school enrollment and capacity in advance of a board study session on the KIPP request scheduled for this Monday, Feb. 11, at 6 p.m. The board is set to vote on a preliminary facilities proposal at its Thursday, Feb. 14, meeting in order to meet a mandated deadline the next day. Both meetings will take place at the district office, 2120 Euclid Ave., East Palo Alto.

KIPP can respond to the preliminary proposal. The district is required to make a final facilities offer to KIPP on or before April 1.

The remaining community meetings are Wednesday from 5:45 to 7:15 p.m. in the Willow Oaks Elementary multipurpose room at 620 Willow Road in Menlo Park; Thursday from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Brentwood Academy multipurpose room, 2086 Clarke St., East Palo Alto; and Saturday from 1 to 2:30 p.m. in the district boardroom at 2120 Euclid Ave. in East Palo Alto.

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