Hundreds attend Pacific Collegiate School forum on facilities dispute
J.M. BROWN - SENTINEL STAFF WRITER
Article Launched: 10/22/2008 1:00:00 AM MDT
SANTA CRUZ -- Hundreds of parents, students, teachers and other residents packed a large meeting space and an overflow room at Pacific Collegiate School on Tuesday night for a forum about the uncertain future of the charter school.
By hosting the town hall-style meeting, PCS board members said they were seeking to clear up misunderstandings about the nearly yearlong dispute with Santa Cruz City Schools over facilities and provide a road map for what could happen if the two sides do not negotiate a renewed lease for the school's current district-owned site.
"We need to model our adult behavior after our children," said Dina Hoffman, a member of the school's facilities committee. "We can abandon the rhetoric that comes from a place of fear and try to understand each other's needs and problems."
At least three district trustees, including President Cynthia Hawthorne, who has guided the board's policy on dealings with PCS, attended the meeting but did not speak despite an invitation from the audience to do so.
The controversy has heated up since PCS officials and their advocates showed up at a district board meeting last week to ask the trustees to return to the bargaining table despite the school's recent submission of a Proposition 39 request for facilities from the district. Advocates on both sides have traded barbs on several Web sites in recent weeks.
Hawthorne and district Superintendent Alan Pagano repeated in an interview with the Sentinel on Tuesday that they do not intend to negotiate over a new lease but would be willing to hear a new proposal from PCS if the school, which educates about 440 students in grades 7-12, set aside the Prop. 39 request. The request is an application under state law for facilities and equipment for PCS students who live within the district's boundaries.
The two also acknowledged in the interview that the district may need in coming years -- based on enrollment projections for the district -- to reopen the former Natural Bridges Elementary site currently being used by PCS. Under Prop. 39, the district could not offer the site to PCS because it is an elementary site, but could re-lease it outside Prop. 39.
Hawthorne and Pagano also said Tuesday they were unwilling to participate in mediated discussions proposed by Superintendent Michael Watkins of the county Office of Education because they said they cannot legally negotiate over facilities while the Prop. 39 application is pending.
Watkins has tried unsuccessfully for months to get the two sides to find common ground, and was asked by county trustees last week to form a blue-ribbon panel to reach a solution. PCS board President Deepika Shrestha Ross said the school would meet immediately with the district, but has not discussed what new lease figure it might offer for Natural Bridges outside the Prop. 39 request.
On Tuesday, parents asked PCS officials about what could happen if there are no lease renewal talks. They also decried the animosity that has developed between the two sides.
Ken Cole, the PCS facilities chair, said the district could offer to place PCS students at one or more secondary school sites, and the charter school would have to lease other space for its remaining non-district students -- thus splitting up the nine-year-old school.
But if the district's Prop. 39 offer is unpalatable to the charter school, PCS can reject it, seek court relief or rent another facility until the matter is resolved, Cole said. The school, with its $1.25 million reserve, could also consider buying a facility.
Rachel Dewey Thorsett, a district board member, and Jack Dilles, a county Board of Education member, said they believed the meeting was productive.
But Thorsett said there are still many issues important to the district -- such as the lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity at PCS -- that have not been addressed by the charter school.
"If those are addressed, there may be a way forward," she said.