Imploring board members to use their hearts instead of their heads, an impassioned group of students, teachers and parents from Olive Grove Charter School asked the Santa Barbara County Board of Education on Thursday to let the school operate out of Cuyama while operating its satellite locations in more populous areas.
The school was founded in 2001 and has its school and main office, at 2540 Alamo Pintado Ave., located in the Los Olivos School District. The school also has other satellite locations in Lompoc, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara and Morro Bay.
Proponents of the school said that last June, word began to spread that the Los Olivos School District wanted to shut down the 300-student school in order to reclaim the funding that would otherwise go to the district. The school started the search for another district to call home, and the only district to express interest was the Cuyama Joint Unified School District, which ultimately voted against the decision.
The school appealed that decision to the Santa Barbara County Board of Education, which voted 6-0 Thursday to deny Olive Grove’s appeal and uphold Cuyama’s decision. County Education Office attorney Joe Sholder said laws require a physical location within the chartering school district, which Olive Grove doesn’t have in Cuyama.
Olive Grove Charter School officials have not issued a statement on what they intend to do next, but may appeal this case to the California Board of Education. School supporters say the goal is to resolve the issue over the summer so that classes can resume in the fall.
The school teaches K-12 students by allowing them to home-school but be supported by parents and teachers in classroom labs or online with independent study. Teachers also help craft individual education plans for the students, many of whom have turned to the school after failing to flourish in a traditional classroom setting.
At Thursday’s meeting, supporters held brightly colored signs reading “We Support Olive Grove Charter School,” and so many people attended the public hearing that the board had to move the hearing from the regular board room to the auditorium to accommodate the crowd.
Supporters of the school said that charter schools must work through school districts, which puts them in competition for funding, pressures from teacher unions and ideological differences about education.
Susanne Coie of the Sacramento-based Charter Schools Development Center told the Board of Education that it has discretion in its decision and though the law calls for a school to operate within the district’s bounds, it doesn’t call for an actual school site.
Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Dave Cash disagreed, saying he supported Cuyama’s decision to deny the school’s request. He said the charter conflicts with existing law because the school did not intend to operate in Cuyama, but instead operate satellites locations outside the district, including within Santa Barbara Unified boundaries.
If that goes forward, Cash said the district will “not hesitate to consider options we have to take,” all but promising litigation.
A number of other schools offer independent study options, including Alta Vista High School, he said.
John Davis, assistant superintendent of the Santa Maria Joint Unified School District, said that while charters do play a beneficial role in education, “we also want to maintain that charter schools follow the law,” he said, adding that the school needs to operate within a geographical district.
The board also heard a slew of earnest pleas from parents and students, one of whom said she was bullied so badly while a student at Santa Barbara High School that the police got involved. Her grade point average was low, but she said she’s succeeding now that she’s at Olive Grove.
As for the suggestion that she attend Alta Vista, the student said she would miss the interaction of her school.
“You just turn in a packet a week; that’s not school to me,” she said. “I love my school. As a junior, I would be directly affected.”
Cole Michaels, an Olive Grove student with Tourette syndrome, said that it’s often difficult when teachers in a traditional classroom have so many students that they can’t focus on one who has special needs.
“It’s just rough because they have so many other students to work with,” he said, adding that Olive Grove provides one-on-one teacher support.
Krystal Keinert, an Olive Grove teacher who previously taught at Dos Pueblos High School, echoed that thought.
“It was overwhelming to have a classroom of 35 students and to try to meet their individual needs,” she said. “We’re filling a unique niche.”
Ultimately, SBCEO attorney Joe Sholder said the meeting wasn’t being held to determine whether the school was doing a good job, but whether the school followed the law.
“If you’re not happy with the law, go to the Legislature,” he said, adding that there must be a physical location within the chartering school district. “The law doesn’t say you can rent a facility and not intend to use it as a school. Finding some empty storefront and saying now we have a physical location that satisfies the law … That’s not it.
“The key is that you need a real, operating school. … Most of you don’t live in Cuyama. There are no facts that we’ve been able to glean that any of you are going to be driving up to Cuyama. … After that you can have resource centers.”
Susan Salcido, SBCEO deputy superintendent, said it was clear that the group was passionate about their school, but the petition submitted on March 6 by the school was not sufficient.
The petition “lacked sufficient detail in several areas,” including no mention of Common Core State Standards and English learner standards, she said. County staff agree with the Cuyama School District’s findings, she said.
SBCEO Superintendent Bill Cirone said the decision was “very heart wrenching for all of us,” he said, adding that the office wants to support alternative education.
Board member Marybeth Carty agreed, and commended the speakers for their passion.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” she said, but that to override the county’s counsel would be “foolhardy.”
Still, she offered encouraging words as the group proceeds with options for their future.
“It does not end here,” she said, “and we wish you the very best of luck in your appeal to the state.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.