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Classroom politics: Demand is high and supply is low at a politically charged Avila Beach charter school

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CHARTER CLASH:  The idyllic Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School in Avila Beach is the somewhat unlikely setting for a heated dispute between various groups of parents concerned about the school's admissions policy. - PHOTO BY RHYS HEYDEN
  • PHOTO BY RHYS HEYDEN
  • CHARTER CLASH: The idyllic Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School in Avila Beach is the somewhat unlikely setting for a heated dispute between various groups of parents concerned about the school's admissions policy.

When it comes to the educational future of their preschool-aged children, a vocal and divided group of local parents isn’t messing around.

On Oct. 30, Bellevue-Santa Fe Charter School—an idyllic, 154-student K-6 school surrounded by apple orchards in the Avila Beach hills—was the unlikely setting for the latest in a series of tense school governing board meetings.

Essentially, the conflict at Bellevue-Santa Fe boils down to differing opinions about which students should be entitled to enrollment priority.

Enrollment at the popular charter school—the only scholastic institution in Avila Beach—is decided each year via a lottery system, which randomly determines the order of both continuing students and new applicants within 12 prioritized and pre-ordered “selection categories.”

Disputes involving how to order those 12 categories have cropped up periodically over the years—at one point leading to admissions policy changes that prompted several parents to file formal grievances during the 2008-09 academic year.

On Oct. 30 of this year, a group of about 30 attendees, largely local parents, gathered to voice their opinions about the school’s admissions policy, which is currently under review by the seven-member Bellevue-Santa Fe governing board.

Some members of the board and attendees advocated for the middle ground, but the assembled parents were by and large split—with a group who argued that residents of Avila Beach should get enrollment priority, and a group who advocated that siblings of existing Bellevue-Santa Fe students—even those who live outside of Avila—should get top priority.

“We are here for the young people of this school,” said Ashlee Leonardo, a San Luis Obispo resident and mother. “When whole families and siblings attend the same school together, it enriches everyone’s education. I urge the board to give siblings of current students preference.”

“One of the reasons my family bought a house in Avila was so my daughter could go here,” said Avila resident and father Thomas Paine, gesturing at his 4-year-old daughter sitting on his lap. “I’m quite emphatic that your location should be the highest priority for attendance. She needs to go here.”

All said and done, about 24 people spoke during public comment at the meeting, with a healthy number on each side of the debate. The governing board hasn’t yet agendized any action regarding the admissions policy, but during the Oct. 30 meeting, it unanimously approved formation of an advisory committee to further assess community opinions.

Currently, the school’s admissions policy prioritizes continuing students who live in Avila first out of 12 categories, siblings of continuing students who live in Avila fifth out of 12, new applicants who live in Avila sixth out of 12, and new applicants who are siblings of continuing students outside of Avila (but within the SLO Coastal Unified School District) eighth out of 12.

When asked for his thoughts on the admissions policy controversy and how the school plans to deal with contrasting parental opinions, longtime Bellevue-Santa Fe Principal Brian Getz said he sees it both as a classic “supply and demand” problem and something of a catch-22.

“As far as the admissions policy, if we don’t change it, some people won’t be pleased, and if we do change it, other people won’t be pleased,” Getz told New Times. “Still, it’s important to have the dialogue.

“It’s the absolute toughest moment when you have to say ‘no’ to kids and parents,” he added. “I do feel quite strongly about the quality of the education we’re providing, and it’s obviously in high demand.”

Getz (who also serves on the governing board) said there are roughly 100 students on the school’s waitlist—which fluctuates from year to year—and it’s “way too early” to say what, if any, action the governing board will take. He added that his primary goal is to provide the best possible education for his 154 students.

One of the other major voices in this debate is local attorney Saro Rizzo, who lives in Avila Beach and has two young children whom he hopes to enroll at Bellevue-Santa Fe.

“Based on my analyses of [the school’s] charter, the California Election Code, and recent case law, I believe that [the school] is mandated to give pupils who reside within [Avila] top admission priority,” Rizzo wrote in an Oct. 20 letter to the governing board. “It is therefore my position that any current or adopted policy that changes or tries to circumvent/minimize this statutory requirement is or would be illegal.”

While Rizzo and his wife, Lisa, described the law as “very clear” in regard to giving Avila Beach residents enrollment priority at the Oct. 30 meeting, others who were at the meeting said their take on the case law is different.

Jared Salter, a father and pre-litigation director at a local law firm, said that the recent case law certainly favors Rizzo’s position, but it’s far from an ironclad mandate. He added that situations that are drawn into the legal sphere often become radicalized on both ends of the spectrum, even though the truth often lies somewhere in the middle.

“The spirit of compromise is important to me, but because the debate over the school admissions policy is turning litigious, everything is getting polarized,” Salter told New Times. “People are taking extreme positions.

“Unfortunately, you see this all the time: when extremely nice and rational people just turn absurd when it comes to their kids,” he added.

Ultimately, the incoming fall 2015 kindergarten class at Bellevue-Santa Fe will consist of 22 students, and the overall student population will remain at 154, but precisely where those students will come from—and which students will be on the outside looking in—is yet to be determined.

 

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.

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