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Charter wars 

Ousted parents give Bellevue charter school poor marks on admission policy

click to enlarge PUBLIC OR PRIVATE?:  Parents fought back after a policy change kept some local Avila kids from the Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School. The policy was reversed, but bad blood remains. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PUBLIC OR PRIVATE?: Parents fought back after a policy change kept some local Avila kids from the Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School. The policy was reversed, but bad blood remains.

When the new kindergartners at the Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School take their seats this year, not all who might have been there will be present. After an arbitrary change to the school’s admissions policy, eight students were bumped to the back of the waiting list. Some parents had to find new schools, some became so frustrated they pulled their kids out of Bellevue, and at least two have filed a grievance against the school district.

“It’s really been a long process of the district tripping all over themselves …,” said Rafael Alvarez, whose child was bumped onto a waiting list after the policy change. He’s also upset with Bellevue’s board and its principal.

Rafael and his wife Allyson filed a grievance against the San Luis Coastal Unified School District on July 9. They believe the Bellevue governing board improperly changed the school’s admissions policy and may have violated the Brown Act in the process of doing so. District officials did not return calls for comment.

The school’s principal said school officials thought they were following the state policy and never intended to bar any students.

Bellevue is nestled in the hills of Avila Valley. Compared to most schools it’s small, with about 125 K-6 students and 11 teachers. Charter schools are publicly funded but have characteristics of private schools, including selective admission policies, small class sizes, and often, high test scores.

In November 2008, the school’s governing board met to review the admissions policy. The seven-person board decided to change the existing admissions policy to give new preference to siblings of existing students—even those from out of the district boundaries—over children whose homes were near the school. Though the decision wasn’t made in private, Rafael believes it may as well have been because he and others didn’t get wind of it. His child ended up on the lottery waiting list, which is effectively a denial.

After learning of the shift, Allyson and another parent demanded answers from Bellevue Principal Brian Getz and the San Luis Coastal Unified School District. According to Allyson and Rafael, the policy shift was illegal under California’s education code. District officials agreed the decision wasn’t properly made and told Bellevue officials to fix it. On June 17, the governing board held another meeting, this time to reverse the policy, but acceptance letters had already been sent. To accommodate children who were previously denied admittance, the school had to increase the incoming kindergarten class size.

But again, Allyson and Rafael said, there was little notice of the meeting and they had to pressure Getz to inform the parents of eight displaced kids before notice was sent. Those parents weren’t e-mailed until about 4 p.m. on the day before the 11 a.m. meeting.

Getz said the school followed the Brown Act and properly notified people of the meetings. He added that the policy was meant to keep families together in the school.

“The policy change was done in good faith according to our own understanding of charter law,” Getz said.

Asked why the policy was reversed, Getz said it was to “maintain a good relationship with our charter granting agency: That is San Luis Coastal.”

But from the outsiders’ perspective the change was a way of saying outsiders need not apply.

“It’s like the wild, wild West out there,” Allyson said. “They kind of run their own game.”

Even after the policy was reversed and their child was allowed in, Allyson and Rafael opted against enrollment at Bellevue and instead filed a grievance.

One of the other parents New Times contacted wasn’t outwardly angry, just frustrated, because when the school’s policy changed, so did her family’s plans. Valerie—she asked not to be named in full—said she first began planning to send her daughter to Bellevue immediately after she was born. The school told Valerie to wait until the December before her daughter was ready to enroll, so she waited. When the time came to enroll, the school’s policy had changed, pushing her far down the waiting list behind other kids from outside the district.

Valerie didn’t file a grievance, instead she moved from Avila to SLO to find a school in which her daughter could actually enroll. Had her daughter not been put on Bellevue’s lottery list, Valerie said she probably would have stayed in Avila.

“So yeah, it was just sort of a bummer,” she said. “Obviously it’ll work out; it’s just changed our plans.”

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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