101017 Richardson School Board

Mark Richardson, superintendent of the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, said that for the district to consider authorizing Olive Grove Charter School's application, officials must feel "confident that it will serve the students." The district previously denied the charter school's application last April.

Mathew Burciaga, Staff

Olive Grove Charter School submitted a new petition to the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District on Tuesday -- roughly six months after the board denied the nonprofit's initial request to authorize their learning center.

"We’re asking the board to receive the petition," said Mark Richardson, superintendent for the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District, who noted this is the second petition brought to the board.

Olive Grove Charter representatives did not speak at Tuesday's meeting.

By accepting the petition, the district now will begin a formal process before deciding to authorize or deny Olive Grove's charter. Trustees will hold a public hearing regarding the petition at their Nov. 14 meeting, and a decision will be made Dec. 12. 

"We're basically starting the process over," Richardson said. "We're going to harness our staff, review the stuff they submitted and grade it out based on the rubric. I think they tried to take a step back and look at some of the weaknesses in their previous application."

Originally authorized as a dependent charter school by the Los Olivos School District in 2001, Olive Grove Charter School was created to offer students a tuition-free alternative to traditional public schools.

After its authorization was terminated by Los Olivos in 2015, Olive Grove approached the Cuyama Joint Union School District to authorize the charter.

Cuyama's eventual denial prompted the charter school to approach the County Education Office, which, in turn, denied the request as well.

With denials at the district and county level stacking up, Olive Grove approached the California Board of Education with a petition to authorize its charter.

Despite a report calling on the board to deny the petition, the state board of education opted to authorize the charter.

Under its current state authorization, which expires in 2022, Olive Grove currently operates six independent learning centers in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

In 2016, California's 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled in Anderson Union High School District v. Shasta Secondary Home School that nonclassroom-based charter schools are prohibited from operating independent learning centers outside of their authorizing district. 

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Under the new precedent, Olive Grove currently operates its learning centers out of compliance with California state law, despite its state authorization, and must seek approval from each respective district to operate after 2022.

"It's a different dynamic because the rules have changed for charter schools," Richardson said of the ruling. "It's one thing for us to have the program operating within our district not in conjunction with the law; it's completely different for us to be responsible for the program. Our responsibility now is to ensure that it is a quality program that is sustainable."

Despite the district's willingness to restart the conversation, Richardson expressed concern regarding the charter school's ability to provide an adequate learning environment for students classified as English language learners.

According to him, independent study programs often face difficulty in differentiating instruction between students fluent in English and those who are learning the language, which may prove challenging for Olive Grove, given the high percentage of English language learners in the area.

"We're acutely aware of [these issues] in our district because we have a lot of English language learners in our district," he said, raising concerns about Olive Grove's ability to provide language development services, bilingual materials and, if necessary, translation. "There are several questions we would need to sort out based on the application and see what is presented to us."

As the process continues and the district evaluates Olive Grove's petition, Richardson re-emphasized the importance of meeting student needs and demands.

"We want to be fair in our approach and review it based on the rubric we're provided with. The biggest thing for us is, if we're going to sign off on the program, we have to feel confident that it will serve the students"

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.