Charter School Debate Difficult, Important

Some things are not as important as others. At the top of my list of vitally important issues: the economy, the number of unemployed or underemployed Americans, the war in Afghanistan, plutonium in the hands of terrorists, the future of predator warfare between nations, and the quality of America’s public education.

But last Wednesday night there was nothing more important to me than to chair the decision-making process on whether or not to extend the Bullis K-8 Charter by five years. I wished to do so with wisdom and care. I for one love the collaborative, experiential learning environment that emphasizes individual student learning goals, which Bullis implements with deftness.

We had already gone through a grueling week of e-mail exchanges, phone calls and media queries—even Bloomberg News Group expressed interest in the Bullis renewal issue. As president of the Santa Clara County Board of Education, I was hoping for a process that would lead to a win-win for all concerned about Bullis and the Los Altos Elementary School District.

Depending on who you listen to, the four-hour debate was far too contentious and protracted. On this blog, my board colleague, Trustee Craig Mann, wrote, “Last night’s Board meeting of the SCCOE Board of Education was disgusting in that one could witness the so-called ‘adults’ in varying states of dysfunction, ignorance and or incompetence.”

In Sunday’s edition of the Mercury News, the Internal Affairs column wrote: “Last week the county school board majority was either outsmarted by Bullis, confused by state law or ill-prepared to enforce its conditions on the school.”

I vehemently disagree with both sources and I wish to set the record straight from my perspective, knowing full well there are a variety of vantage pointes and views.

For seven years, the Los Altos community has been divided over Bullis’ authorization to exist. The SCCOE Board authorized the charter. Since that time, the community has been feuding in unhealthy ways over the existence of Bullis and its demands for comparable space for far too long. It was my intention to listen to all views, take as much time as needed to eventually sort out the key issues of dispute, get them in writing for the two sides to address proactively and then move forward for the sake of the children and community.

The LASD trustees and the others representing segments of the LASD stakeholders who addressed the SCCOE Board that evening did not want the charter for Bullis revoked. In fact, they said they respect the learning community of Bullis in many specific ways. What they were hoping for is the county board to hold Bullis more accountable for:

• Serving a broader segment of the Los Altos community of children through expanded outreach requiring their enrollment demographics matching more closely with the average number of Latino students (7.5 percent for LASD and 3.7 percent for Bullis. The SCCOE staff report agreed and said Bullis needed to cure their deficiency in serving underserved students).
• Enrolling a larger percentage of special need students at Bullis comparable to the percentages in LASD.
• Requiring Bullis to come up with a process to elect a more representative Board of Directors from the parent community.
• Looking at ways to bring litigation, perceived to be unnecessary and costly, to an end through the proposed use of binding arbitration between Bullis and LASD.
• Ending the special attendance boundary area for Los Altos Hills.

There were other issues contested during the debate, including asking each Bullis parent to voluntarily contribute —some believe with untoward pressure—$5,000 to cover the total cost of educating one child at Bullis.

After 90 minutes of listening and asking clarifying questions, a motion was placed by board member Leon Beauchman and seconded by board member Mann that reauthorization without restriction be approved for Bullis’ five-year charter extension. At that time, from my perspective, Bullis had only three votes for unrestricted renewal. The remainder of the board, including me, wished for these issues to be satisfactorily addressed.

After an additional 90 minutes of debate and listening carefully to what was said and implied, it was suggested by the majority of board members to ask Bullis to defer the decision until a more formal draft of concerns could be written. Then the request for reauthorization would be brought back to the SCCOE Board in November. According to advice from county counsel, this delay of 28 days would require Bullis to mutually agree. It was at this time I asked Bullis board Chairman Ken Moore to come to the podium and consent or deny the request of the majority of the county board.

He deferred to his legal counsel, who came up to the microphone to state that his board was not prepared to agree to an extension at this time. According to the information I had, Bullis needed to agreed to an extension or we needed to take a vote at the meeting, otherwise the reauthorization would fail. From what I heard, the latter was not what the vast majority in the room or the board wanted. In a Los Altos Patch online poll, 64% of 789 votes wanted the charter renewed. I called the question at that time and the motion on the floor passed by a 5-2 vote, with members Song and Mah voting against reauthorization without restriction.

It was a messy process. However, it was democratic. It is still my hope that in the contract, which needs to be drafted between the SCCOE and Bullis and signed by both parties, all of the concerns raised will be adequately addressed for the future of the Los Altos community.

I also take responsibility for not getting us further along to resolution of these contentious issues last Wednesday, and wish to apologize to the Magnolia Charter School community for delaying their annual report to the board to a future meeting.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. BCS is an asset to the community, and we are lucky to have such a high-quality public school in our area. Thank you for this insight into the process and for remaining about the fray of parents acting like children.

  2. A complete oversight failure by the county board over BCS. Allowing the BCS board’s lawyer to tell you how to proceed proved you have no idea how to supervise your own charters. If you wanted a different outcome, it is your responsibility to manage it. You should make room for competent leaders.

    • Yes, there are bigger, more important problems to solve. No, the Board did not help the community move on to solve those bigger, more important problems. A “re-authorization without restriction” will almost certainly ensure that the five points you laid out will be there five years from now.  Five more years of the Los Altos community NOT focusing on bigger problems. I want BCS to succeed. They provide an amazing education that should serve as a model to other schools. My children have greatly benefited from the BCS program. I am one of the 64% that wants their charter renewed.  You had an opportunity to address larger Los Altos community concerns. You deferred to the BCS lawyers and as a result there is now a “re-authorization without restriction” rather than charter renewal that could be satisfactory to a larger community.  Shame on you for not, “take(ing) responsibility for getting us further along to resolution of these contentious issues”, and for missing an opportunity to help the Los Altos community move on to focus on solving the bigger problems you speak of.

  3. California public schools are not properly educating all school children and are burdened with too many unnecessary school districts, too much costly bureaucracy and union interference in teacher performance and student achievement

    California School Teachers Association the most powerful lobby in state politically controls public schools

    Many parents want their children in better schools – so are moving their children to charter or private schools not under performing troubled public schools

    Taxpayers believe taxes are too high and do not support more taxes for mismanaged underperforming teacher’s union controlled public schools

    California legislature will not reform public schools since amny meaningful reforms are opposed by politically powerful California Teachers Association

    Charter schools will continue to grow until many school districts have majority of their schools charter schools and voters realize that remaining public schools badly need reform and pass school reform proposition over CTA opposition

  4. Hi –
    I was not able to attend the meeting last Wednesday, so I listened to the recording.
    I think you did an excellent job of letting all sides have their say.  As a LASD taxpayer, I have been concerned that the district has spent far too much of the tax payers money on lavish benefits for employees and retirees. While I think hard working teachers deserve to be paid well, I think that much better choices cold have been made about how to structure compensation.  The money should be spent in the classroom making sure that teachers are well trained, and that students have the support they need, including specialists teachers.

    I also think the district made an unfortunate choice when it reopened Gardner Bullis.  The north end of the district has very crowed schools, Almond, Santa Rita and Springer.  These schools also have almost all of the low income students that everyone seems to be interested in serving.  I   think that part of the problem originates because the district has stuck with the neighborhood school model.  This model favors the residents who live close to a school. 

    The kids north of El Camino do not have a neighborhood school.  I think sticking to this model really hurts these kids.  I am happy to see that BCS has plans to out reach to the north of El Camino Community but I also think that the district needs to do more.  One thing that they could do is open a few school of choice programs, either as charters or magnet schools.  Enrollment preference could be granted to students attending the three most crowed schools.  Palo Alto has some excellent magnet schools, so the district wouldn’t have to look far for a program that works. 

    Thank you for voting to continue the charter, I think it benefits our community.

  5. Dead Horse Theory

    If you don’t understand this theory, you haven’t lived long enough.

    The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from generation to generation, says that, “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.”
    However, in government and education more advanced strategies are often employed, such as:
    1. Buying a stronger whip.
    2. Changing riders.
    3. Appointing a committee to study the horse.
    4. Arranging to visit other countries to see how other cultures ride dead horses.
    5. Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included.
    6. Reclassifying the dead horse as living-impaired.
    7. Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse.
    8. Harnessing several dead horses together to increase speed.
    9. Providing additional funding and/or training to increase dead horse’s performance.
    10. Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance.
    11. Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries lower overhead and therefore contributes substantially more to the bottom line of the economy than do some other horses.
    12. Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses.
    And of course….
    13 Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position.

  6. “A recent poll”?

    That has GOT to be the most idiotic thing I’ve heard in my LIFE. You know those polls are unscientific, right? That BCS people are like a lock-step army who are all ORDERED to go vote in that poll—whereas meanwhile LASD is legally forbidden to even acknowledge it’s existence? That they can stuff that ballot box using various tricks on the Internet?

    Regardless, here’s another “vote” for you:

    THIS is what Los Altos and Hills parents think of Bullis Charter School. Now that we’re facing the VERY REAL possibility of our schools closing because of this mess you made, we’re FIGHTING MAD.

    THIS is the year that Los Altos and Hills parents finally are heard.