Intense lobbying over Pacific Collegiate School's facilities impasse with Santa Cruz City Schools continued Wednesday as the county's top education official appeared before district trustees to encourage a return to the bargaining table.

Before trustees entered closed session to discuss the PCS controversy, Michael Watkins, superintendent of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, told them two attorneys had advised him that the district could legally negotiate with the charter school while simultaneously weighing a facilities application filed Sept. 30 by PCS under Proposition 39. The state law allows charter schools to request facilities and equipment at a reduced rate for the percentage of their students who live in the boundaries of the local school district.

District officials have repeatedly claimed they will not negotiate with PCS to stay at the district-owned Natural Bridges site while the Prop. 39 application exists. They say the charter school must either drop its facilities request and make a new lease extension offer, or await the district's Prop. 39 response by Feb. 1.

The reason the issue is important is because the 440-student charter school is a nationally award winning school renown for its advance placement courses. But critics have charged that PCS has only succeeded because its ethnic and socioeconomic make-up -- mostly white children from Santa Cruz -- is far from representative of the county's special education needs and 50 percent Latino population.

How much latitude the district has to work on dual tracks is a matter of legal opinion. By making a personal plea for talks, Watkins said he hoped to avoid a court battle between the two sides while also answering concerns Santa Cruz board members have raised about the PCS' diversity, $1.25 million reserve and parental governance.

Reading from a letter signed by him and two county education board members, Watkins said, "Certainly the courts will not have the latitude to craft a decision that addresses the underlying issues Santa Cruz City school representatives have presented ... or have the potential to create lasting understandings and the start of new relationships that could bring value and inspiration to the benefit of all our students."

Deepika Shrestha Ross, PCS board president, also pleaded with trustees to meet. Afterward, she said the charter school could not drop its Prop. 39 request because if a deal with the district fell through, the school would be without a home when the Natural Bridges lease expires in June.

Trustees did not respond to the overtures before going into closed session. Afterward they announced they will consult with their lawyer about whether they can negotiate with PCS and will discuss the matter again in closed session at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Watkins' appearance followed a PCS facilities forum Tuesday attended by district board members and an overflow crowd of parents and teachers.

Although talks with PCS ended this spring after the charter school made an offer that was $300,000 less per year than what the district considered fair market value, there was relative calm until the Prop. 39 request prompted advocates from both sides to stage lobbying campaigns at the public meetings of their opponents.

Contact J.M. Brown at 429-2410 or jbrown@santacruzsentinel.com.