Charter school, district clash

Chico Country Day faces possible eviction if an agreement isn’t made on renting its facility

Chico Country Day School Principal Paul Weber chats with third graders during their art class.

Chico Country Day School Principal Paul Weber chats with third graders during their art class.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

About Prop 39:
It requires school districts to offer space equivalent to what they would offer in the public schools to charter schools based on the number of in-district children attending the charter school. When CUSD voted to get rid of class-size reduction, that affected schools like Chico Country Day, in that fewer classrooms were offered, hence lowering the “rent” slightly from $72,000 to $69,000.

Chico Country Day School isn’t getting along so well with the Chico Unified School District of late. Actually, things are going so poorly that CUSD Superintendent Kelly Staley recently gave the popular charter school an ultimatum: Pay your rent or take your 500 students and get off our property.

Apparently the dispute over “rent”—technically called the pro-rata share—has been going on since January, when the district offered up the campus on West 11th Street for about $72,000 for the school year. That number actually did get lowered—to about $69,000—by the end of the negotiating period, but CCDS never approved it, arguing it wasn’t calculated correctly.

Hence the notice of eviction sent to the school Sept. 24. “Absent timely acceptance of the District’s Final Offer … CCDS is not authorized to use District facilities and must seek alternative facilities for the balance of the 2009/2010 school year,” Staley summed up in her letter.

“It’s certainly not something we wanted to see happen,” said CCDS Principal Paul Weber.

What’s at issue is Proposition 39, which allows charter schools to rent facilities from school districts based on the number of in-district kids the schools serve. The state provides a formula for arriving at the pro-rata share per charter, and it can fluctuate from year to year, explained Sara Simmons, charter-school liaison between CCDS and CUSD.

CCDS questions the calculation of its pro-rata share, and has gone back and forth with CUSD for months, even offering mediation and dispute resolution as options, trying to get the district to budge on the $69,000 figure.

CCDS said there were things like maintenance figured into the rent amount, but Weber argued that CUSD does not offer maintenance—so why should they have to pay for it?

The first installment, a little more than $23,000, was due Oct. 1, and CCDS did hand over a check in that amount. According to an Enterprise-Record story Tuesday, however, Staley instructed staff not to deposit the check yet. Neither Weber nor Simmons knew the reason for that. Staley did not return a phone call seeking comment.

According to Weber, the rent for the previous two school years was calculated at roughly half of what it is this year. Simmons said, however, that because of a legal snafu on the district’s part, the district offered CCDS the campus for free in 2008-09. “He’s right, though, that the rates can change from year to year,” she added.

While discussions have been ongoing since January, the CUSD’s “final offer” is required to be accepted (or denied) by May 1. The final offer has still not been accepted by CCDS, and the CUSD has taken that as a denial and therefore “[CCDS] is occupying the space without authority,” according to Staley’s letter to the school.

However, according to a facilities-use agreement that spans through this school year, Weber argues CCDS does have the right to be on the campus. “You must be aware that the CUSD and CCDS have a fully-executed ‘Charter Facilities Agreement’ in place, which provides CCDS with the unequivocal ‘right to exclusive use’ of the 102 W. 11th Street site through the rest of the 2009-2010 year …” CCDS’ attorney, John C. Lemmo, writes to Staley in a letter dated Oct. 2.

“The biggest thing we’re worried about is this notion that these kids could be out on the street, that this school wouldn’t be allowed to be on this site,” Weber said. About 500 children in grades K-8 attend Chico Country Day. “We want to assure the parents that we are working, that we want to protect the kids and the families here. It is a difficult situation.”

Simmons, who said she doesn’t imagine CCDS will actually be kicked off campus, posed the question: “If that was their concern, why didn’t they accept the offer by May 1?”

It’s certainly gotten the attention of parents, too. Monday night, shortly after receiving a letter from CCDS explaining the issue, concerned parent Brian Teal started a Facebook group called Fight for Chico Country Day School. As of Tuesday afternoon there were already 106 members.

Tuesday afternoon, Teal met with a small group of parents to discuss the issues and how they can make a difference.

“Initially the parents were very upset, and instead of trying to just get angry we just wanted to get together and approach it in a positive way,” Teal said. Their main issue is the $8.4 million grant issued the school under Proposition 1D. Apparently the CUSD board will not discuss it—meaning that money is not available to CCSD—until this rent issue is resolved.

“It’s ours as soon as we can have the Chico Unified board vote to approve it,” Weber said. “We’ve been trying to ask the board to do that for some time, and they haven’t.”

That money, which comes as part low-interest loan and part grant, would allow the charter to modernize the campus, while the district still maintained ownership.

“It’s a win-win in our minds,” Weber said.

Teal echoed Weber’s sentiments, saying the parents are champing at the bit to be able to get a more updated campus for their children. Teal, a banker, currently has a daughter in the fourth grade and another daughter who will enter kindergarten at CCDS next school year.

“We’re concerned,” Teal said. “We don’t want to fight the district for hearing the Prop 1D information. We just want to have it heard and not have it pushed out again.”

Teal said for the past several school board meetings, 1D was on the agenda until a few days before the meeting, when it was pulled.

“No one is saying they shouldn’t modernize,” Simmons said. “We recognize that’s a good thing. We’d just like to have agreement about how the campus is going to be utilized this year.” In other words, the district would like another agreement on use of the facilities—while parts of it are under construction.

It’s unclear where the two entities will go from here. CCDS has teamed up with attorney Lemmo, who drafted a cease-and-desist letter to CUSD that accompanied the check for $23,000.

“Chico Country Day School is deeply saddened and chagrined by these recent efforts taken by Chico Unified School District that would displace all of our children from the school site …” reads a letter sent to parents and staff Monday (Oct. 5).

Clearly CUSD does not want to bring in a mediator or further discuss the issue of rent—it just wants its money. And CCDS maintains that the calculations are off.

“We’re looking for resolution, and we’d all like this to be resolved,” Simmons said.

It’s safe to say everyone would like the issue resolved, but Simmons said that to date she is not aware of any specific problems CCDS has with the calculation of the pro-rata share. Weber said he has submitted specific issues—particularly maintenance—with the calculation.

So, what’s the likelihood that the students and faculty at Chico Country Day School will be out on the streets before the end of the school year? It’s anybody’s guess, really.

“Kelly Staley has told me, ‘We’re not going to do that’—but they put it in writing, which is pretty clear. I have to go by what’s in writing,” Weber said.