Pacific Collegiate and Santa Cruz City Schools have stalled in negotiations about where to put the students
Pacific Collegiate School is Santa Cruz’s crème de la crème – at least according to U.S. News and World Report, which ranked PCS as the second best public high school in the nation in 2007, or in the opinion of Newsweek, which ranked the local charter school as thirteenth in 2008.
And yet, all ranks aside, the school is facing some grave uncertainties about the future. For the past five years, the grade 7 through 12 school has nested in what was once Natural Bridges Elementary School on the Westside. Last March, the school and its landlord, the Santa Cruz City School district (SCCS), were unable to renegotiate the lease. As a result of this and a lack of possibilities to follow, PCS filed an official Proposition 39 facilities request in October. In accordance with the Prop 39 timeline, the district has until Feb. 1 to respond with an offer, although representatives have said they hope to have a decision this month. For now, the school waits.
Although the immediate issue is the school’s pending homelessness, the conflict is ripe with other concerns from both sides. Tara Firenzi, the PCS faculty dean, for example, worries that the outcome of the Prop 39 request will not resolve outstanding issues of impermanence and detachment between the school and the district.
“In the long term, what we’d really like would be to be in a place where we feel we are wanted and we don’t feel stressed about ongoing negotiations or acrimony with the district,” she says.
The rocky relationship between the school and the district – which has become a mess of allegations, miscommunication, immobility and other fun stuff that is born of administrative unrest – can be traced back to when PCS was first forming.
The school went to SCCS to ask permission to form first. After the district rejected their proposal twice, they went over the district’s head to the County Office of Education (CoE), which signed them into existence.
“It goes back to the history of the relationship,” says Ken Cole, the PCS board facilities chair. “They fought our coming into existence. Now, ten years later, we have all these accolades and have been rated so highly. Why wouldn’t the district want to embrace us and partner with us [when] they could get the benefit of that relationship? The politics of this are parochial.”
Break it down: Prop 39
Much of the confusion surrounding the current conflict is why PCS is locked in a battle with the city district if they are officiated by the county.
“When it comes to the Prop 39 request for facilities, we have to go to Santa Cruz City Schools because, even though we are technically sponsored by the CoE, our facilities come from our geographical linkage, which is Santa Cruz City Schools,” says Cole.
While the county is free to make an offer on the side, they are not accountable to individual schools’ facility requests. According to section four of Education Code 47614, as amended by Proposition 39 in 2000, that responsibility lies with the district in which they reside, whether or not they were wanted there.
“They are obligated to provide us facilities if we have at least 80 of their students who would otherwise be at their schools,” explains Dina Hoffman, a local estates attorney and PCS parent.
PCS has 277 “in district” students whom SCCS is legally bound to provide facilities for. But they have nearly 200 additional students, drawn to PCS from all over the county, who are not covered by the Prop 39 request. Cynthia Hawthorne, president of the SCCS board of trustees, says that while the district is doing its best to meet the legal requirements of the request, their offer will only give academic shelter to the in-district students – effectively splitting the student body.
“I’m concerned that the implications of the Prop 39 request may fall very heavily on the PCS student population. That’s not something that city schools is driving. We are acting on this request from PCS but this would not have been our way to handle it,” she says.
Firenzi says that PCS is very aware of these possible consequences. “Prop 39 is not a great solution,” she says. “It can only provide for the percentage of our students that are in district, which means that our students are probably not going to be kept together. That is a nightmare situation for teachers and students. This is not what we want.”
The district’s Prop 39 options for PCS are limited to Santa Cruz High, Harbor High and Soquel High. Both parties are concerned about the impact that putting a small school within a bigger one would have on all of the students involved.
The Prop 39 request and its ensuing complexities was not the district’s preferred solution, but it was also a last resort for PCS. They’d wanted to stay put. Erin Newport, a senior at PCS and editor of the school’s paper, Roar, was a seventh grader at PCS when the school moved from a church on High Street to the current Swift Street location. She remembers how difficult the move was on the students, and feels that – after five years of getting settled at the old elementary school – the disturbance would be devastating. She says the students finally feel at home. “This campus has become a big part of who the school is,” she says. “That permanence is so important to the school.”
If PCS and the district would’ve preferred for the school to stay put, why did the lease negotiations fail last March?
The district came to the table with a market rate rent price of $420,000 for the Swift Street property [for the year]. This school year, PCS is paying $275,000. According to Cole, the school came to the bargaining table with a lower price with plans of raising the offer as negotiations progressed. They claim the district was unwilling to negotiate the $420,000 price or discuss Prop 39 rights.
“Our lower offer was supposed to be a starting point for discussion. But they said ‘no discussions, it’s $420,000.’ Now they won’t talk to us,” says Cole.
From the other side of the battlefield, the story goes that the school was unable to make a reasonable offer within the allotted time frame. As for their higher-than-before offer, the district believes PCS can afford it, and, given public education’s current budget crisis, expected them to step up to the challenge, even if it meant dipping into their 48 percent reserve.
“In this budget year, they could’ve made this controversy go away by doing the lease renewal negotiations,” Hawthorne says. “They never came up with an offer or suggestion that was close to appropriate during the negotiations window.”
In June, PCS added $800,000 to their reserve for “site acquisition.” In light of this, and the over $1.5 million that the school is known to have in the fund, the district saw no reason they couldn’t pay the new price.
Cole argues that their reserves, although much larger than the state mandate for charters of five percent, cannot be spent on operating costs.
“We are not going to spend our reserves on operating, they are for the future,” he said. “Our operating budget could not afford a $420,000 use fee without big cuts in other places.”
Among other costs, they are bracing themselves for a future that might entail buying property or expensive legal fees.
“If we didn’t have reserves, we wouldn’t be here. If other public schools go into deficit, they stay. If we get into some huge lawsuit that takes all of our money, we’re done,” says Firenzi.
The school waited through months of failed communication with SCCS before filing the Prop 39 request on Oct. 1, hoping that an alternative solution would be agreed upon before it is granted. However, since making the request, the district has declined to participate in open discussion.
“The district is really doing the amazing amount of homework and paperwork for the Prop 39 request. That is what we are working on now, and we aren’t ready to report out,” says Hawthorne.
While school representatives speculate on the implications of getting the cold shoulder, SCCS says they have no choice but to play it safe. According to Hawthorne, the ball is in PCS’ court. The district is waiting for a new offer to be made, at which time she says they will reconsider opening up negotiations. After a closed-session meeting last Wednesday, SCCS board vice president Ken Wagman announced that the district will be sending PCS a letter, although declined to state what the content or intention of that letter will be. [As of press time, it’s unknown if Wagman will retain his seat in the Nov. 4 election.] Until then, they plan to focus solely on granting the Prop 39 request.
Hawthorne says that this is precautionary; the district must protect itself because PCS has publicly stated that they will take SCCS to court if an unfavorable offer is made.
“Anytime you hear a public entity say they are taking another public entity to court, you aren’t going to see the main one – that is us – doing anything that isn’t stated by law. We are the trustees of public money and nobody wants to spend the public money on litigation,” she says, adding that the district is facing much larger (albeit less well known) troubles with its other schools. “[PCS] is smaller than our elementary schools,” she explains.
Cole and his fellow board members do not wish for the matter to end up in court, but are preparing themselves to fight back if necessary.
“We are going to go somewhere, lick our wounds, and figure out how we are going to strengthen our Prop 39 rights and come back the next year,” he says. “[But] Prop 39 is an annual facility request, which means that every year we have to file, they have to respond, lawyers have to look at what is going on. Every year there is the chance we’ll end up in court. That’s scary for both parties.”
“We are under tremendous pressure from anxious parents, anxious students, anxious staff. If you think there has been a fight so far, know that I am holding people back. We are trying to be the reasonable party that says ‘let’s sit down and talk,’” he adds.
PCS is not preparing to make another offer for the Swift Street property until the district will speak with them. The district will not speak with them until they make a specific offer.
For the time being, PCS is keeping its fingers crossed that an alternative solution will come before Feb. 1, or at least that they will see an offer they can live with at that time.
According to Cole, the worst-case scenario is if the board’s suspicions that the district would like to squash the charter are confirmed, and PCS finds itself going “out of business.” In which case he believes the district will still not have defeated the charter.
“If the desire is here in the community for a charter, a new one would form in six months. There is a lot of fantasy out there about making us go away, but we represent a demand for change. That is what it is really about.”
Children in the Middle
On her way into closed session on Oct. 29, Hawthorne shared that she is “absolutely supportive of charter schools” in general, but not of PCS. “The purpose of a charter is to provide something that is not being provided in the comprehensive schools. Our main issue with PCS is that they aren’t offering something that isn’t already being offered. All three of our comprehensive high schools offer excellent AP classes, which is supposedly the goal of PCS,” she says. She added that while PCS prides in an AP-centric education, UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo remain the top two destinations of its graduates. PCS is not placing its graduates in colleges that are beyond the reach of comprehensive school graduates, in her opinion.
Another concern that PCS critics, including the district, have with the charter school is a lack of diversity. Hawthorne says that while a school is meant to mirror its community, PCS does not have fair representation of Latino or special needs populations. “They only serve a small subset of the elite students of our county, but they have a mandate as stated in their charter to serve all the student sub-groups in the percentages that reside in our county,” she says.
Hoffman, who has two daughters at PCS, argues that the district’s complaints about the charter cannot stand in its way of providing facilities. “The city schools have nothing to do with us except act as our landlord. The irony of that is that they’ll raise issues like they don’t think we are diverse enough, but it’s not really their business. They don’t have that authority,” she says.
However, Hawthorne argues that these concerns have not played a role in the district/PCS relationship. “We have not challenged them publicly about our concerns about their charter or their use of public funds,” she says.
Nor did the critiques affect the lease negotiation, she says. “This was a simple lease negotiation, albeit with a difficult tenant,” she says. “I had no idea the lease negotiation was going to fail. What tenant says to their landlord, ‘We’re going to offer you 50 percent of what we have been paying you for five years?’ From our view, we’ve been very good neighbors to them for the past eight years or so.”
Those on the PCS side of the battlefield, however, don’t feel that coming to the table with a non-negotiable market-rate price of $420,000 for the Swift Street property was very neighborly.
“It’s bigger than this. Our battle with them is a microcosm of a bigger battle between charters and traditional public schools,” says Cole. He says he can’t help but feel the district’s criticisms of PCS are influencing their actions – issues that he recognizes and hopes to work with SCCS to resolve.
“If they were sitting at the table with us, we could be talking about any and all of those. That’s the place where those should come up, not as an excuse not to talk with us,” he says.
County Office of Education Superintendent Michael Watkins acknowledges that there is a statewide conflict over charter schools. However, he does not believe that the district is making life difficult for PCS because of anti-charter sentiments. “They do have charters beyond PCS,” he says. “They understand the role of charters. They understand reform.”
As a third-party witness to the clash, he both sympathizes with the district’s concerns about the charter and agrees with PCS that they can only be resolved when openly discussed. “I want PCS to understand the diversity we have in the county, but we can’t even address this if they don’t have a home,” he says. He adds that this dialogue needs to happen because the school is “here to stay.”
To help take the standoff from stagnant to succeeding, Watkins has proposed the formation of a blue ribbon panel comprised of representatives from both parties. PCS has expressed interest in participating, but Watkins is still waiting for a response from the district. “The intent was to get some movement as opposed to stalling the negotiations,” he says. “I want them to come a resolution where both parties can move forward and there wouldn’t be a disruption to the student population.”
Because, while reporting on the issue can certainly feel like being subjected to a tug-of-war between divorced parents (the two parties have ceased communication, hammer their incontestable sides of the story onto your impressionable third-party mind and want you to like them best), there are very real children caught in the middle of this argument. Children whom Watkins feels have been forgotten along the way. “Students have been lost in this mix. That’s the thing that frustrates me — they’ve been lost in the mix of adult rhetoric,” he says.
Felicia King, a senior at PCS, is the student government president – the queen of the Pumas, if you will. She has been working hard to educate students and parents about the situation, even holding a school assembly on the matter. King is encouraging students to vocalize their concerns and increase their presence in the discussion.
“It’s much more tangible when you see the students,” she says. “It becomes much more of a real world issue, it moves it out of the attorney realm and becomes much more personal.”
After learning more about the affair, she and her classmates have realized that the grown-ups involved need some schooling themselves. Forget math and social studies, she says, they need a lesson on the art of resolving conflict. “The next step for student advocates is to come out into the community and say that we need to have our adults and our school district exercising productive compromise,” she says.
Some of those adults are hopeful. Hoffman, whose two daughters at PCS are currently volunteering in Africa, believes that the needs of the students will prevail over the hostilities … eventually.
Her 17-year-old’s experience tutoring at a severely disadvantaged public school overseas has shined new light on the battles here at home.
“There are people who don’t have access to any education at all, and here we are squabbling,” Hoffman says. “But I’m very hopeful that things are shifting. If we can sit down with [the district] and get through the emotional difficulties, we can reach a win-win solution.”