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.

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