The Santa Barbara school board voted Tuesday night to keep the bilingual Cesar Chavez Charter School open through the end of the school year, but the school’s fate beyond that point remains uncertain.

The Lower Eastside school has been under threat of closure because of low test scores.

In a 3-2 vote, with board members Kate Parker and Susan Deacon dissenting, the board — in front of a packed theater auditorium at Santa Barbara High School — made a decision that failed to completely satisfy either side of a widening dispute. The conflict pits Superintendent Brian Sarvis against the parents and staff of the dual-immersion school, where students spend half their time learning in English and the other half in Spanish.

At issue is whether the board should renew the recently expired five-year charter of the school, officially named Cesar Estrada Chavez Dual Language Immersion Charter School.

Cesar Chavez, at 1102 E. Yanonali St., runs on public money but enjoys near-complete local control, enlisting its own parent-dominated governance council to make major decisions. But every five years, it must go to the school board for charter renewal. The school’s charter — which is akin to a school’s constitution — officially lapsed last month.

Sarvis has argued that the board should not renew the charter because its test scores are so low that the school doesn’t meet any state-set guidelines for renewal. (The school’s scores, he said, are in the bottom 5 percent of all charter schools statewide.) Instead, he says, the school should use the rest of the year to put together an application for a new charter altogether. However, despite his firm stance on renewal, Sarvis has softened his tone; two weeks ago, he spoke of school closure as a viable option.

Still, Cesar Chavez advocates dispute the school district’s test-score data, saying their own version of the data shows that the students are performing comparably with others in the district. As such, they argue that the school does qualify for renewal. In addition, they insisted that the school brings intrinsic benefits that can’t be measured in test scores, such as the value of bilingualism.

“It takes the moral imperative at moments like this to say, ‘You know what? The state is wrong,’” said Marisela Marquez of UCSB.

The Cesar Chavez camp also has said that the start-over-from-scratch option might be too expensive and time-consuming.

In the end, the board decided Tuesday to extend the recently expired charter to the end of the year. But it left unanswered the more controversial question: whether the school should put together a plan seeking renewal of the existing charter or apply for a new charter. That, essentially, puts the ball in Cesar Chavez’s court.

Cesar Chavez second-grade teacher Michael Mancioci speaks to the school's supporters at a gathering outside Tuesday's Santa Barbara school board meeting.

Cesar Chavez second-grade teacher Michael Mancioci speaks to the school’s supporters at the gathering outside Tuesday’s Santa Barbara school board meeting. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

“It seems to me this argument of whether to have a new charter or renew the charter isn’t the point,” school board member Bob Noel said. “The point is to come up with a plan that addresses the issues. There’s going to have to be a sound educational plan.”

The two dissenting board members — Deacon and Parker — both said they wanted to keep the school open, but felt that the school stands a greater chance of survival if it scraps the idea of charter renewal in favor of a new charter. They supported Sarvis’ proposal, which would have shut the door on renewal.

“I’m worried the school actually jeopardizes its future more by asking us to continue the renewal process,” Parker said.

Now, the school’s parent-run governance council is left with a difficult choice. It can choose the less-expensive path of tweaking the existing charter, but that option is a major gamble, as Sarvis has clearly stated his opinion that the school doesn’t qualify.

The other option is to start fresh and try to write a new charter, which essentially would mean starting a new school and could necessitate a name change.

After Tuesday night’s board meeting — which stretched until 11:15 p.m. — Lee Fleming, the school’s governing council president, put the estimated cost of submitting a new charter proposal at about $30,000. That, she said, is a lot of money, given the school’s annual budget of $2 million, about 85 percent of which is made up of teacher salaries. Plus, Tuesday’s decision obligates the school to pay the district up to $40,000 for the cost of a consultant to help boost the performance of the school’s students, most notably the ones considered English learners.

“I’m extremely disappointed,” she said, adding that of the five board members, only one — Ed Heron — has visited a Cesar Chavez classroom. [Noozhawk’s note: Both Deacon and Parker say this isn’t so, as they have recently toured the campus.] “They essentially closed a school.”

Tuesday’s vote was based on a motion by school board trustee Annette Cordero, one of the founders of the school in 2000. Even Cordero seemed to recommend that the school submit a new charter.

“This is too important to lose simply for want of willingness to look at other things,” she said.

Among the hundreds of people packed into the Santa Barbara High auditorium Tuesday was former Cesar Chavez Principal Eva Neuer, whom the governance council fired a week ago. Council members have not given a reason for her dismissal, citing personnel confidentiality laws. Neuer did not speak to the board Tuesday, but did trade hugs with several Cesar Chavez affiliates.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.

Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.