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A charter school that operates campuses throughout Santa Barbara County is facing an uphill battle for survival as two school districts within the county have already declined its charter petition.

The Lompoc Unified School District Board of Education became the latest entity to deny Olive Grove Charter School’s charter request during a special meeting Friday morning in the LUSD Education Center Board Room. The LUSD board’s motion to deny the request, which was recommended by district staff, passed with a 4-0 vote. Board member Richard King was absent.

The LUSD vote was preceded by a similar denial three days earlier from the Santa Barbara Unified School District board. Olive Grove, which had been seeking four total charter petition approvals in six overlapping districts, will seek approvals from the boards representing the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District on April 11, and the Orcutt Union, Santa Ynez Valley Union High School and Buellton Union districts in the next two weeks.

Despite the denials, Olive Grove has a charter authorized by the State Board of Education that lasts through the 2020-21 school year. School administrators said they plan to keep the school open at least through then, no matter what happens with the district charter process. 

LUSD staff provided a 14-page report to the board members ahead of Friday’s meeting that outlined the basis for its recommended denial. These included legal issues regarding Olive Grove’s alleged amendment of its current state charter without authority, as well as the school’s “inadequate educational program, the lack of transparent data, the incomplete educational planning, and weak student outcomes” for the school’s current students.

Laura Mudge, the executive director for Olive Grove Charter School, spoke briefly at Friday’s meeting following the vote. She raised concern about the legality of LUSD presenting the same findings as the Santa Barbara school district staff, and also disputed the accuracy of those findings.

“We really are doing a good thing for a very small percentage of people and students,” Mudge said to the board members, who didn’t discuss the matter beyond the actual vote itself. “I just really wish you would reconsider and give us a chance.

“I just feel we didn’t really get a fair opportunity,” she later added. “No one came to our learning center. No one came and asked to see anything about our program. No one spoke to our business manager. We just feel like it was unfair.”

New court ruling

Mudge said she is prepared for similar decisions from the other school districts and is already planning to appeal, first to the Santa Barbara County Education Office and then, if necessary, to California’s State Board of Education.

“They’ll have all of this information and know what kinds of denials the districts are using, and the illegal tactics,” Mudge told the LUSD board members Friday. 

Olive Grove Charter School, which offers a tuition-free K-12 program that is an alternative to traditional schools, initially was approved in 2002 by the Los Olivos School District as a dependent charter school. In 2015, however, the school terminated that charter and sought a charter with the Cuyama Joint Union School District.

Cuyama denied that petition and Olive Grove appealed to the county, which ultimately denied the appeal. The school then appealed to the State Board of Education. Although a staff report from the board recommended another denial, the State Board of Education ended up granting Olive Grove’s petition in July 2015.

With that state charter, Olive Grove is operating an independent study program using resource centers in New Cuyama, Orcutt, Lompoc, Santa Barbara, Buellton and San Luis Obispo.

The reason the school is petitioning the local districts now is due to a recent court of appeal decision in the case of Anderson Union High School District v. Shasta Secondary Home School. The court of appeal ruled in the case that the state’s education code prohibits a charter school from operating resource centers within the same county as the authorizing district, but outside the boundaries of the district.

The Santa Barbara and Lompoc school districts each interpreted this ruling to mean that Olive Grove was “still subject to the geographical restrictions that were applicable to its earlier petition to Cuyama. … Thus Olive Grove must comply with … location requirements even though it has a State Board of Education charter.”

According to the school districts, Olive Grove is not compliant with those restrictions and is, thus, operating unlawfully in the Santa Barbara, Lompoc, Buellton, Orcutt and Santa Maria districts. The LUSD staff report also suggested that Olive Grove did not follow proper protocol by applying for a district charter before discontinuing its state charter.

On Friday, Mudge provided a response letter to Lee Central Coast News that was dated April 6, the day before Friday’s meeting, and addressed to LUSD Superintendent Trevor McDonald and members of the LUSD board.

In the letter, which was signed by Mudge and Olive Grove’s legal counsel, the group referred to the district’s report as “extremely misleading and based on a wholly incorrect understanding of charter law” and concluded that “the staff’s findings must be rejected as an incorrect and insufficient basis to deny” the petition.

Reason for denial

In the LUSD staff report, the district highlights several issues with Olive Grove, including in governance, oversight and areas of academic performance, among others, and presents four recommended findings.

Regarding the school’s administration, the report states that Olive Grove “has reportedly experienced governance issues since it obtained its State Board of Education charter. These difficulties include three board of director resignations and several staff terminations that have resulted in lawsuits alleging retaliation by Olive Grove Director Laura Mudge.

“While all school districts periodically experience these issues,” the report continued, “the volume of these issues in a small educational organization over a short period of time suggests that Olive Grove may not be up to the task of governing six charter schools in six different school districts.”

The staff report also states that Olive Grove presents an “unsound educational program” for students. This is based on poor state assessment test results for 2015-16.

“Noting in the petition addresses the reasons for those results or proposes any measures to improve instruction,” read a portion of the staff report. “To the contrary, the petition describes the same home-schooling model that Olive Grove is currently using.”

Mudge argued in her response letter, which addressed each of the district’s four recommendations, that Olive Grove’s state-approved charter and its academic performance are not relevant to the discussion with LUSD and has no applicability to the school’s petition request.

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She noted that none of the information provided by district staff meets the legal definition of an “unsound educational program” and that the district’s findings in several areas are based on “incorrect facts, or go beyond the requirements of the law.”

The letter goes on to point out that Olive Grove is qualified as an Alternative Schools Accountability Model (ASAM) school due to the fact that “most (Olive Grove) students have had severe truancy issues, are homeless or foster youth, pregnant and/or parenting, have been in and out of jail, etc.”

“As you know,” states the letter, “ASAM-qualified schools must not be analyzed on test scores the same as traditional programs, regardless of the outcomes.”

The letter went on to dispute each of the other claims in the staff report, either by characterizing them as outright falsehoods, misinterpretations or simple misunderstandings that could have been cleared up with a visit or phone call.

Road ahead

Olive Grove, which has its records office in Orcutt, could be in danger of shutting its doors if the other districts, the county and state all deny the petitions.

The school currently serves 470 students — including 120 in Lompoc — across its six learning centers. Jesse Leyva, a member of the Charter School Development Center board and former Olive Grove Charter School principal, said that total number has been as high as 700.

Leyva said that districts began cutting back the number of kids in charter schools as district budgets became tighter. LUSD, for example, gets between $8,000 and $10,000 from the state per student enrolled in its schools.

Leyva, citing bullying and other concerns with traditional schools, said that some students need a place like Olive Grove.

“Kids don’t want to be on these (traditional school) sites,” he said following Friday’s LUSD meeting.

Mudge agreed with that assessment and said after the LUSD meeting that she’s hopeful Olive Grove can survive with its appeals.

“The students that come to us are not making it in the traditional systems,” she said.

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.