SANTA CRUZ -- When Pacific Collegiate School vacates its Santa Cruz campus in two years, the nationally pace-setting charter school will have a few options for relocation -- all of which come with challenges.
The 14-year-old Westside school, known for its advanced academics, could buy a facility or lease a site long term that could be renovated to house 30 classrooms and possibly some recreational space. Either choice would be costly, likely requiring a capital campaign.
There is a third option that, while less expensive, is fraught with problems for the 516-student school and its current landlord, Santa Cruz City Schools. Under state law, PCS has the right to petition the district for "reasonably equivalent facilities" and equipment to serve the roughly 60 percent of PCS students who live within the district's boundaries.
Exercising that option under Proposition 39 -- a voter-approved education measure passed in 2000 -- would mean PCS would be divided into at least two campuses. PCS would run a site for its out-of-district students, while the district would provide PCS space at one or several of its own buildings for in-district children.
"We don't want to upset the district -- we don't want to force students off a campus," said Pete Rode, PCS board president. "A Prop. 39 request is not optimal, but if you get right down to the survival of the school, if that's what we need to do, that's what we need to do."
BREAKING UP A SCHOOL
Rode said he expects his board to determine by the fall whether to pursue an independent site or a Proposition 39 request. The decision involves taking a hard look at how much money needs to be raised for a private site versus the possibility of being carved up on district campuses.
Meanwhile, space within the district is already at a premium and officials would be loath to increase its class sizes to free up rooms for PCS. Overcrowding is why the district's board voted last week to reopen the Natural Bridges Elementary campus leased by PCS.
Superintendent Gary Bloom, who sent PCS a two-year notice to vacate Friday, said the district would do its best to keep the PCS population together as much as possible if a Proposition 39 request were filed. While the district could house in-district seventh- and eighth-grade students at one site and high-schoolers at another, Bloom acknowledged creating greater separation would be difficult for PCS.
"I can't imagine a scenario where we would create that kind of unmanageable situation," he said.
Proposition 39 has pit other districts against charters in a battle over how facilities are split up.
Bullis Charter School of Los Altos is locked in a legal dispute with the Los Altos School District over space and other resources, a situation PCS and Santa Cruz City Schools leaders hope to avoid after years of their own confrontation. The two locked horns over the school's fundraising tactics, enrollment preferences and lack of ethnic and economic diversity even before weathering tough negotiations beginning in 2008 to put in place their current lease.
"My biggest fear is that we get into some type of litigation," Rode said.
Hilary Harmssen, managing regional director for the San Francisco Bay Area office of the California Charter Schools Association, said she hopes the two could reach an accord again.
"From a statewide perspective, Prop. 39 facilities arrangements are rarely routine and often challenging. State law provides that all public school students, including those in charter schools, deserve facilities that support a quality education," she said. "It is in the best interest of students that districts and charters develop long-term arrangements as they did in Santa Cruz."
While PCS and the district agree a Proposition 39 request is in no one's best interest, they don't agree on when PCS could begin receiving accommodations under the law.
PCS leaders believe its lease allows for a facilities and equipment request in the months leading up to their summer 2015 departure from Natural Bridges, with accommodations to come that fall. But district officials contend the agreement prohibits the charter school from receiving accommodations until a year after the school has moved out, or the fall of 2016.
The lease's wording is contributing to the confusion.
"PCS will be eligible for facilities under Proposition 39 in the first school year after it vacates the premises ... such that it may only make a request for facilities pursuant to Proposition 39 in the last year PCS occupies the premises for a facilities allocation in the subsequent school year after PCS vacates the premises," the lease states.
However, the two sides may never have to wage a fight.
A PCS task force has looked at several sites for a new facility and the school has hired a consultant to review financing options. The school conducts an annual parent fundraising campaign to offset shortfalls in state funding, but the money also has helped to boost the school's reserves, which last year were audited at $3.5 million.
PCS leaders say only about a third of the reserves is unrestricted cash, with other assets making up the difference. The school could tap reserves for a new facility, but has agreed not to transfer any money to a private foundation created last year to fund a new site and support other school programs.
"Most likely there is space out there," Rode said. "We just need to find it."
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