PCS under fire for heavy handed pressure to “donate”

The Santa Cruz County Office of Education has consulted legal counsel regarding the fundraising tactics of Pacific Collegiate School.  In April 2011 Principal Archie Douglas sent a heavy-handed personal letter (see below) to PCS parents who did not contribute to the school’s Annual Fund Drive.  Public schools practices are under close watch by the ACLU and the legislature as practices begin to drift further and further from the free public education promised by law.  The outcome of the investigation by the County Board is still pending.  COE board members are reported to be divided in their response on this issue.

In the interim, the issue is garnering national attention through a flurry of comments on the Thoughts on Public Education news site and blogs.

In addition to the ethical questions raised when the principal, the academic leader of a school, is pressuring specific parents directly to donate, there are questions about the transparency of the actual financial status of PCS.  In the Annual Report distributed to parents, the school shows only a very slight excess of revenue over expenses. In its messaging, PCS states that parent donations are essential for the day to day operations of the school.  It is made abundantly clear to parents that the programs that serve their children are dependent on their individual contributions (“you get what you pay for” – Archie Douglas).

And yet.  The actual financial reports – not distributed to parents, but available by public records request – show that the school ended the year with almost $300,000 in excess revenue.  The Annual Fund Drive brought in $771,000 from parent donations.  Instead of meeting the needs of the students currently enrolled, nearly half of those parent donations have been added to the school’s already astounding cash reserves.

Charter schools are required to maintain an economic uncertainty reserve of 5% of operating expenses. PCS wisely set their target at a conservative 17.5%.  After years of a high pressure donation campaign (including collections calls from other parents and board members) for “day to day” needs, PCS has accumulated cash reserves of 68% of their operating budget.  A school with annual revenues and expenses under $4 million is sitting on $2.4 million in cash.

In a recent board meeting, the excess revenue was acknowledged.  The board voted to grant Principal Archie Douglas a $6,000 bonus and give teachers a 2% increase in base pay. The remainder of the excess will be addressed in the 2011-12 budget yet to be made pubic.

It is appalling that parents are shamed and named into paying $3,000 per year per student under the misleading impression that PCS is under-funded while the board – with no oversight from its chartering authority – accumulates cash at an astonishing rate.  The PCS board has not disclosed their intent, but recent discussion with a realtor indicate that parents may have been contributing to a capitol campaign all along.

Letter sent to 93 non-contributing Pacific Collegiate families:

April 28, 2011
Mr. **** and Ms. ****
Dear *** and ***,
Everyone knows we’re a public school, and no one is unaware of the financially challenging times we’re all experiencing these days. Whether you’re a family or a school, every penny counts, right? I am currently working with the Finance Committee on next year’s budget. With that said, while I know you have not been able to make a financial contribution to PCS yet this year, I am writing today to urge your participation in this year’s Annual Fund.
I don’t mean to appear insensitive in making this request. We know our families are grateful for the quality educational experience that PCS provides, but the fact is that it just cannot be provided with public funding alone. If you don’t make a tax-deductible gift to the Annual Fund this year, your share of that burden will be passed along to other families, and we will be that much more limited in what we can offer, whether it be through staff compensation or program resources and support.
Of course, your decision not to participate in this year’s Annual Fund Drive might be rooted in other issues or concerns. If that is the case, I hope you will follow up and let me know. I have yet to work in a school that could not improve, and that effort always begins with communication and understanding. I hope you will feel free to arrange a meeting with me at any time to talk through troubling issues.
I firmly believe that in education, you get what you pay for: there are no bargains. The great success of the PCS Annual Fund over the years stands as proof of that assertion; it makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity. All of us are being careful with our money today, so why not make PCS your philanthropic priority? Yes, we ask for $3,000 per student, but we also know that not everyone can dig that deep. So do what you can – please. We need you, and every family like you, to contribute what you can to the PCS Annual Fund Drive.
Please help us get to the fiscal finish line on June 30 without compromise to our great program. Know that every gift – no matter the size – makes a financial difference, and that every contributing family joins a large circle of community support. PCS is special – join us in keeping it that way!
Thanks for your support,
Archie Douglas

ACLU Suit: PCS prime example of public school fees

Today the California chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action suit against California for failing to protect the constitutional right to a free public education.  Pacific Collegiate School has long been under fire for their $3,000 per student per year appeal (50% of which flows directly into cash reserves).  In addition to the Annual Fund Drive appeal and collections process, all families are also expected to pay fees for core academic courses.

In a recent notice to parents, a reminder to pay fees was issued:

Due to family and teacher requests, we have created one form which includes all of the student fees. This form has been designed to make it easier for families to pay each of the classroom fees, yearbook, student planner and student identification all with one check.  Please fill out a form for each student and indicate the grade level.  The forms should be returned to the Office for processing.

Please note that all science classes have a $30.00 fee including AP Biology and Conceptual Physics which were mistakenly omitted on a previous form.

The fees range from a high of $35 for basic junior high English to $10 for AP classes (fees are also required for AP tests).  The fees are for required courses.  A small box may be checked for families who wish request a scholarship for relief from the fees.

In a press release, the ACLU seeks to restore the rights of all California public school students to a free education.

The suit contends that this discriminating practice against lower-income children will result in an unfair system where only the wealthy will be able to afford an education that is constitutionally supposed to be free to all regardless of economic status.

Pacific Collegiate school is required by law as are all charters to reflect the demographics of the surrounding community.  The school does not currently enroll a measurable subgroup of socio-economically disadvantaged students.  School leaders claim that the fees and donations expected of its member parents are not deterrents to students of poverty.

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County Office of Education challenged on PCS Charter Renewal

The rescheduled public hearing is supposed to take place in fewer than 48 hours.  We have just received a lengthy challenge to the PCS charter renewal that addresses issues with discrimination, diversity, access, public meeting laws, admissions policies and more. The County Office of Education has received a letter from the Dannis, Wolliver, Kelly law firm outlining a number of issues with the Pacific Collegiate School charter.  The primary areas of concern are:

  • Discrimination, Racial & Ethnic Balance
  • Admission Preferences and Requirements that Prevent Diversity
  • Unlawfully Requiring Parents to make Financial Contributions & Work for the School
  • Charter must be Denied Absent Countywide Admissions
  • Brown Act Violations
  • Violation of Lease Terms
  • Failure to Produce Memorandum of Understanding

The letter references and includes excerpts from the Diversity Task Force report and includes a letter from former PCS board members imploring them to adopt the Diversity recommendations.

The letter may be downloaded here. (62 pgs, 2.7 MB)

The hearing will take place during the regular meeting of the County Office of Education, 2:00 p.m. Thursday, August 19th.

PCS to invoke in-district preference?

Story from Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — Pacific Collegiate School, the charter school with a focus on advanced placement testing, is under legal pressure to give admission preference to students who live in the Santa Cruz City Schools district, a change that could increase the longtime tension between the charter school and the district.

PCS officials say they were instructed by their Sacramento-based law firm Middleton, Young and Minney last month to include a provision in the school’s new charter — under review by the Santa Cruz County Office of Education — that gives preference to students who live in the district. Not doing so, the attorneys say, would violate California law governing charter schools.

“Because our charter is up for renewal, we have to deal with this and deal with this now,” said PCS board President Andrew Townsend, who suggested at Wednesday’s board meeting that they ask their legal counsel for further explanation and guidance on how to handle the issue. “We need to know how much latitude we have in complying with the law.”

PCS has been grappling with the law that gives preference to students from within the district for more than a year. Trustees say charter law has evolved since PCS was founded 10 years ago.

This law has been in effect for many years. The PCS board has been fully aware of it and set up the lottery out of compliance with the law.  Parents whose children were denied their right to preference have threatened litigation.

The popular Westside charter school, which has 480 students in grades 7-12, selects students through a lottery system that is designed to admit children from across Santa Cruz County. Preference is given to children of PCS employees and board members and siblings of current students.

There is almost always a lengthy waiting list of students seeking admission as demand exceeds availability.

PCS has been criticized for not serving more Latino and special education students. District leaders have openly expressed frustration with the fact that Santa Cruz City Schools loses thousands of dollars with each student who leaves to attend PCS.

Revising the charter to favor students in the district would violate the recently negotiated lease agreement PCS signed to operate at the former Natural Bridges Elementary School on Swift Street. In June, Santa Cruz City Schools and PCS signed a three-year agreement with an option for a fourth year worth more than $1.3 million, allowing PCS to stay on Swift Street as long as they didn’t seek more students from within the district.

Interesting.  PCS would have signed this lease knowing they did not intend to comply with this condition.

Santa Cruz schools Superintendent Gary Bloom said an easy solution to avoiding the in-district preference would be for PCS to change to a countywide charter.

“Or they could petition the state for a waiver on this part of the law as others have done,” Bloom said Wednesday. “If this happens, it will bring them out of compliance on their agreement to use the Natural Bridges site and we’ll push harder on the legitimacy of their commitment in regards to serving a diverse population.”

These are reasonable and feasible solutions.  They benefit PCS by opening access (legally) to all students and would also allow the school to relocate to a more accessible and affordable site.

Townsend said it’s very likely that all open spots each school year could easily be filled with students who live in the district.

One must wonder why the school denied students who live in the district their right to preferential admission.

PCS trustee Ken Cole said this is not a change the school welcomes.

“We are not actively seeking this. It was thrust upon us,” Cole said.

See PCS minutes September 2008: Ken Cole recommended to his board that the school invoke the in-district preference in order to leverage the school’s claim to facilities under Proposition 39.  He was “actively seeking this” then, when it served their facilities agenda.  The education code is not a menu from which a public school chooses items when they suit a desire.

A public hearing is scheduled for 2 p.m. Aug. 19 before the County Office of Education board to weigh the new charter.

The Education code requires that the chartering authority vote on renewal no sooner than 30 days after the hearing; the proposed vote for the following week does not comply.

Brown Act violations in June

The Pacific Collegiate board met twice in June in addition to the posted and noticed June 2 full meeting of the board.  According to minutes recently released, the board met on June 7 and June 29.

According to the First Amendment Coalition and others, public agencies must use their regular practices to notice all meetings.  Because PCS has established the practice of noticing meetings on their website, they cannot selectively choose not to notice certain meetings. There are no two-tiered communications allowed in publicly funded organization; it is clear that members received exclusive communication, but non-members were excluded from attending this meetings.  Both meetings covered important issues relating to the facility lease and the charter renewal.

Charter renewal hearing schedule waived; takes place without community participation

Story from Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — Charges of elitism at Pacific Collegiate School have surfaced again as the college-preparatory school seeks to renew its charter for another five years.

The county Office of Education serves as the chartering agency for the award-winning public school. County trustees heard glowing testimony about Pacific Collegiate at a meeting July 15, when administrators, parents, teachers and students told board members about their experiences there.

The charter renewal hearings would ordinarily fall in October; PCS petitioned the COE to move the hearings to the summer months.  The petition on June 17, was based on “uncertainty” regarding the Swift Street lease; a lease approved by PCS according to the Sentinel on June 7 and ratified by SCCS on June 16.  The waiver to move the hearings was based on false premises. See County Office minutes of June 17.

There were no dissenters until the next day, when several people called to complain they were unaware the issue was on the agenda, county Superintendent Michael Watkins said. So the board plans a second public hearing Aug. 19 and will vote in a special meeting Aug. 29, Watkins said.

There were no dissenters present because members of the public who receive notice of COE meetings did not receive notice of this hearing; nor did the COE post relevant minutes from the April and May meetings which would have alerted interested community members.

Jim Logston of Santa Cruz, a retired schools superintendent, said he has marked his calendar. The school has been promising to increase diversity for years and has yet to do so, he charged.

“The schools are the real melting pot of this country and a wonderful place to have better race relations, and we have this little elitist school,” he said. “It’s like any prep school; if one kid gets in, the siblings get in. I don’t know how county trustees can look at themselves in the mirror.”

Andrew Townsend, who heads the Pacific Collegiate board, dismisses Logston’s charge, saying trustees have taken several steps to increase diversity.

The school recently hired an outreach coordinator to spread the word that Pacific Collegiate is a free public school, Townsend said. Trustees also will start setting aside 10 percent of the openings, at least five spots per year, for students who would be the first from their family to attend college, he said.

Trustees have repeatedly rejected steps to increase diversity; dismissing many of the recommendations of their own task force.  Past members of the PCS board and current faculty have petitioned the board to take action on this issue. Their requests have been disregarded and have not been made public to the parents or community at large.

Pacific Collegiate serves 480 students in grades seven to 12, at the former Natural Bridges Elementary School on the Westside.

It has repeatedly been named as a top charter school, has shown up in rankings as one of the top 10 high schools in the nation and turns away hundreds of students each year.

Enrollment preference is given to children of staff members, current and former board members and to siblings of students. Open spots are doled out via a lottery.

The school accepted 80 seventh-graders this year, half of whom received a preference admission, Principal Archie Douglas said. Those receiving a preference increased diversity, he said, with 17 percent of them Latino.

That would be 6 children, of 480.  Statistically, the school cannot ever reflect the demographics of the surrounding community unless it takes bold action.  This is most decidedly not bold.

In Pacific Collegiate’s lengthy charter application, trustees compare their students’ ethnicity with that of Advanced Placement students at Harbor, Santa Cruz and Soquel high schools.

On average, 81 percent of the AP students at those schools are white, compared to 76 percent at Pacific Collegiate. At the charter school, all students take Advanced Placement courses.

AP enrollment reflects only a small component of the college-bound population in the conventional schools.  Students are also enrolled in the academies, honors, intensive, AVID and ROP courses.

Another issue of concern to some is the school’s requested donation of $3,000 per family, which detractors say can intimidate low-income families.

Townsend disputes that, saying the school is up-front about asking parents for support, via one letter per year, and that there is no pressure to donate.

Board minutes show monthly updates reflecting phone collections, reminder letters and parent-to-parent follow up.  Every donor is listed by name and donation level in the annual report.  Donors not able to make the $3,000 ask are publicly called out.

Other criticisms include that the school cherry-picks some of the area’s best students from other public high schools, which in turn siphons money from those schools. Santa Cruz City Schools Superintendent Gary Bloom said it is important to minimize that negative impact.

“PCS targets high-achieving, college-bound students,” Bloom said. “That’s a group we serve very well, and is a priority for us. And when they target those students, it has an impact on the composition of our student body.”

Pacific Collegiate officials say those students are drawn to the rigorous curriculum PCS offers, and that not all students at traditional schools are able to get into AP classes.

“What I hope the conversation ultimately could be is, what do we have to do about getting an AP curriculum for everyone?” Townsend said. “I’d love to be part of that discussion.”

Schools are rebounding from the drain on AP enrollment.  Pulling 480 high ability students out of the conventional schools had an impact on the ability of those schools to offer full sections.  PCS is not immune to this issue; it has been discussed repeatedly in board meetings.  Sections of fewer than 10 students are not sustainable; this is why PCS has approached the conventional schools to seek concurrent enrollment arrangements.

As for financial drain, Townsend said the charter school pays the district some of that back via $340,000 annual rent.

Watkins, the county superintendent, said the charter renewal application is being reviewed by the office and an outside law firm. He said the review is incomplete, but that what he had seen looked good.

“There may be some interpretation around diversity and facilities that may have to be vetted during a legal process,” he said. “There is a lot in the state ed code that is open to interpretation.”

The county Board of Education trustees chartered Pacific Collegiate about 10 years ago, when the school was founded. They did so on appeal, after the Santa Cruz City Schools district declined to grant the charter.

PCS is the only charter school the county office oversees.

PCS faces small deficit. And a huge cash stash.

From the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

SANTA CRUZ — Pacific Collegiate School will need to cut $50,000 to balance the charter school’s projected $3.8 million budget for 2010-2011, a far cry from the $150,000 it had to cut the year before.

At its monthly board meeting Wednesday, where new board leadership was voted in, Principal Archie Douglas said the cuts would not come from staff, whose salaries are about 45 percent of the budget. Instead the school is looking to increase hours in a couple of subjects, and Douglas said the cuts could come in programming that he said sets the school apart.

“It’s a deficit that represents a threat to quality,” he said. “We’re bending over backward to not take it out of staff.”

PCS, with approximately 480 students in grades 7-12, has won numerous accolades over the years, and with admission by lottery, turns away many more students than it can accept. The school requests a $3,000 donation from all families in attendance, which in theory would provide the school $1.4 million per year. The budget is based on receiving half that and Douglas said the donation amount would not be raised. The budget must be presented to the County Office of Education by June 15, said Douglas.

The board also discussed classified employees, who are usually support and clerical staff, paying for the first time into their own retirements at 7 percent of each paycheck. Previously the school made the entire contribution, but as the amount required continues to climb, said Trustee Jigisha Desai, the cost becomes prohibitive.

Yet, despite belt tightening measures, the school maintains a 17 percent reserve, well over the state-mandated 3 percent. The high percentage of funds socked away is in part because of reduced state contributions, said Business Manager Mary Navas. Other school districts in Santa Cruz County, facing large budget deficits, are struggling to maintain three percent reserves.

The next year will be pivotal for the school and its new board president, Andrew Townsend. He will help lead the renewal of the schools charter and its lease. The school is currently on Swift Street in Santa Cruz, and may stay there, but is also looking at buying or leasing property on Harvey West Boulevard.

Townsend said he was confident in the school’s ability to manage both, adding, “I think that the community will stand behind us.”

Fascinating.  Especially this:

Yet, despite belt tightening measures, the school maintains a 17 percent reserve, well over the state-mandated 3 percent. The high percentage of funds socked away is in part because of reduced state contributions, said Business Manager Mary Navas. Other school districts in Santa Cruz County, facing large budget deficits, are struggling to maintain three percent reserves.

On an operating budget of $3.8 million, the cash on-hand for this school of 480 students is over $2 million; $800,000 set aside in a restricted account to be applied to facilities.  That is not by any stretch a 3% reserve.  Nor a 17% reserve.  In this economy, while making decisions to take more from janitors and students, this public agency has a reserve of nearly 60%. That is the public’s money, to be applied to educating the community’s children.  Someone has some explaining to do.

Don’t take our word for it.  Download PCS financial information from the Board Packets available here.