The Santa Maria Joint Union High School District on Tuesday night, denied a charter petition filed by Olive Grove Charter School — the petition has also been rejected by two other local school districts.

The Lompoc Unified School District and Santa Barbara Unified School District have also denied a petition from the locally-operated county charter school, which has been seeking approval for four applications in six districts.

The charter school will visit boards in Orcutt Union, Santa Ynez Union High School and Buellton Union school districts in the next two weeks.

Olive Grove currently operates an independent study program using resource centers in New Cuyama, Orcutt, Lompoc, Santa Barbara, Buellton and San Luis Obispo. Olive Grove operates under a state board of education charter that will allow the organization to continue educating until the 2020-21 school year. 

The school serves 470 students across its six learning centers. Jesse Leyva, a member of the Charter School Development Center board and former Olive Grove Charter School principal, said that total number has been as high as 700.

The charter school is petitioning local districts after a recent court of appeal decision in the case of Anderson Union High School District v. Shasta Secondary Home School. The court of appeal ruled in the case that the state’s education code prohibits a charter school from operating resource centers within the same county as the authorizing district, but outside the boundaries of the district. In that case, Olive Grove is currently operating illegally, according to the document.

According to a 14-page “finding of facts” document provided by the high school district, Olive Grove’s charter petition was denied based on several application and operation nuances.

The charter school’s executive director, Laura Mudge, provided the Santa Maria Times with the school’s response to the denial of their petition by the high school district. In it, she argues that the finding of facts report “does not constitute sufficient legal grounds to deny … the petition.”

Mudge argues that the report is based on findings that “go far beyond the requirements for the establishment of a new charter petition, and grossly misstate material information.”

In a rebuttal letter, which was signed by Mudge and Olive Grove’s legal counsel and addressed to high school district superintendent Dr. Mark Richardson and the board, the group referred to the district’s report as “extremely misleading and based on a wholly incorrect understanding of charter law” and concluded that “the staff’s findings must be rejected as an incorrect and insufficient basis to deny” the petition.

At Tuesday's board meeting, the district's legal counsel, William Schuetz, explained to the board that the charter school's petition application itself did not contain the descriptions for 15 different elements the district would take into consideration, and highlighted the potential financial problems associated with approving the charter petition.

Schuetz recommended the board vote to deny the petition.

Primarily, the high school district found that “the petitioners are demonstratably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the petition.” The document cited evidence of an unrealistic financial and operational plan, as well as lacking an adequate and flexible plan for their budget as enrollment increases.

Olive Grove's budget description, according to Schuetz and the district fact finding report, was premised on over-inflated enrollment projections, and found that the budget would be impacted when enrollment numbers are not realized. The budget description also reportedly did not take into account teacher and staff salary increases or any operational monetary increases.

The finding of facts document also showed that Olive Grove Charter School’s petition “did not contain a reasonably comprehensive description of the charter school’s educational program.”

Based on findings from standardized testing from the 2015-2016 school year, the report cited inadequate descriptions for educational programs for socioeconomically challenged, special needs and English-learner students.

Olive Grove’s rebuttal letter pointed out that the charter school is qualified as an Alternative Schools Accountability Model (ASAM) school due to the fact that “most (Olive Grove) students have had severe truancy issues, are homeless or foster youth, pregnant and/or parenting, have been in and out of jail, etc.”

“As you know,” states the letter, “ASAM-qualified schools must not be analyzed on test scores the same as traditional programs, regardless of the outcomes.”

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Other issues cited in the finding of fact document with the charter school's application for approval were described as lacking reasonable and comprehensive descriptions for measurable student outcomes, the school's governance structure, student health and safety procedures, achieving racial and ethnic balance, admission requirements, as well as suspension, expulsion and dispute procedures.

Olive Grove's rebuttal letter disputed the rest of the claims, noting that the high school district’s counselors “continually refer students to (Olive Grove).”

The letter also read that they believed the report contained factual inaccuracies, misrepresentation and misapplication of law which appear to support a pre-determined denial of their petition, but that the charter school is committed to being a partner with the district and that the issues can be resolved through various means.

The letter also posed the question, “If the (Santa Barbara County Education Office) has found that (Olive Grove Charter School’s) program, governance, financial viability and transparency are all sound, then shouldn’t the district board of education agree and vote to approve (Olive Grove’s) petition so the district can maintain local oversight at the district level?”

No public comment was made on the issue, and the board of trustees voted 4-0 to approve the resolution to deny the petition. Board member Jack Garvin was not present.

In other district news, the board voted 4-0 on two separate resolutions on initial proposals to reopen contract negotiations for the 2017-18 school year with the high school district faculty association and the California School Employees Association. The board also approved a resolution for an initial proposal to reopen contract negotiations between the district and the district's faculty association.

The proposal from the SMJUHD Faculty Associations included negotiations to their contract regarding compensation and the hiring ratio. The proposal from the district to the district's faculty association will include negotiations regarding compensation and hours.

A public hearing for each of the resolutions was required, although no one spoke, and the board voted unanimously to acknowledge the receipt of and adopt the initial proposals for further discussion. Formal negotiations begin May 4.

Krista Chandler covers education in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast News. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @KristasBeat. 

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Education Reporter