Calif. Suit Seeks Court Resolution To Tiff Over Charter Facility Funds

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With the fate of a popular charter school on the line, a California school district is challenging a voter-approved state ballot initiative that requires districts to provide facilities for charter schools.

The 7,400-student Sequoia Union district argues in a lawsuit that it should not be forced to foot the bill for a new facility for Aurora Charter High School because it did not issue the charter under which the school operates.

In one of the twists that make the case particularly noteworthy, the charter for Aurora High was authorized by the neighboring, 9,200-student Redwood City School District.

Aurora's supporters say that officials in the Sequoia district, located in the well-to-do Silicon Valley area, initially supported the school and encouraged them to look elsewhere for the charter, but are now trying to run them out of business over money concerns.

California's Proposition 39, passed last year, holds that a district that approves school facilities bonds must share those proceeds with charter schools that enroll a large portion of students living within the district.

Typically, finding a facility is one of the toughest obstacles for fledgling charter schools, and a ruling in the case, expected in the coming weeks, could have implications for all of California's approximately 350 charter schools.

"A lot of charter schools in the state are really looking at this," said Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Network of Educational Charters, a group that is helping Aurora in its legal battle.

The dispute underscores the complexities of California's charter school law.

Under that law, a charter operator may obtain a charter from any district, regardless of where the independent public school is located. Aurora Charter High was authorized through neighboring Redwood City Elementary because, under the state's system of school aid, Redwood City would be able to secure state aid for the charter, though Sequoia would not because of its status as a wealthy district.

Last year, however, Sequoia residents passed an $88 million school construction bond. And when Aurora sought a share of the bond for its own facility needs the Sequoia district sued the charter school in San Mateo Superior Court. A hearing is set for Aug. 22.

Sequoia's superintendent, Jo Ann Smith, says the case is intended to test Proposition 39's validity, not as an attack on Aurora.

"If someone sent you a bill for $1 million, as Aurora is doing, you would first find out if you owe it," she said. Ms. Smith says districts should not be forced to share tax revenue with any charter school that sets up shop within a district that did not authorize the charter and thus cannot hold it accountable for the money it receives.

"What [the law] essentially permits is anyone to go anywhere to any school district and set up a charter school and send the high school district the bill," she said.

Pigeon Droppings

Aurora exemplifies the struggles many charter schools face in trying to find adequate facilities.

The charter school, which opened in 1999 and serves mostly minority and needy students, set up shop in a 1940s-era building that once housed a J.C. Penney department store. The school shared its decrepit facility, which originally had no internal walls, with local police, who used it as a training and exercise facility.

"I can't begin to describe the squalor and filth in that building, but it was all we had," said Alice Miller, the school's founder. She recalled scraping pigeon droppings from carpeting before the school opened.

Aurora has fewer than 100 students enrolled for this fall, down from about 200 when it opened three years ago. If the school officials do not find a facility in the next week or so, they will have to tell those students to find another school, Ms. Miller said.

She recently moved the school's administrative offices into the guest bedroom in her home.

Several times, the school tried to secure a new site, but had no money and no means of guaranteeing a lease, Ms. Miller said. She's had a hard time keeping a steady enrollment because parents did not want their children spending their days in the decrepit facility, she added.

The only other charter school in the Sequoia Union district has an adequate facility and did not request a portion of the bond, Ms. Miller said.

On June 29, the California state board of education voted to clarify Proposition 39 by stipulating that districts include binding arbitration in facilities disputes with charters, thus avoiding the time and cost of going to court.

Meanwhile, the issue is heating up in the Sequoia district, where, on July 17, more than 100 students and supporters of Aurora held a rally and press conference at the local school board meeting.

Ms. Miller vowed to fight on, even if the school cannot open this year. "[The Sequoia district] will not get away with this," she declared.

Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 23

Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as Calif. Suit Seeks Court Resolution To Tiff Over Charter Facility Funds
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