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Westchester Secondary Charter School v. Los Angeles Unified School District

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Eighth Division

June 19, 2015

LOS ANGELES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT et al., Defendants and Respondents.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. BS147845 Joanne B. O’Donnell, Judge.

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McKenna Long & Aldridge, Jeffrey D. Wexler and Charles A. Bird for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Ricardo J. Soto, Julie Ashby Umansky, Phillipa L. Altmann; Latham & Watkins, James L. Arnone, Winston P. Stromberg and Lucas I. Quass for California Charter Schools Association as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.

David R. Holmquist, Nathan A. Reierson, Joanna Braynin-Sotolov; Orbach Huff Suarez & Henderson, David M. Huff and Marley S. Fox for Defendants and Respondents.

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This appeal stems from Westchester Secondary Charter School’s (WSCS) request for classrooms and related space for the 2014-2015 school year. Los Angeles Unified School District (the District) offered WSCS space at Crenshaw High School (Crenshaw). WSCS objected to this offer and filed a petition for writ of mandate in April 2014. WSCS sought a peremptory writ ordering the District to comply with its obligations under Proposition 39 (as approved by voters, Gen. Elec. (Nov. 7, 2000); Ed. Code, § 47614)[1] to “make reasonable efforts to provide the charter school with facilities near to where the charter school wishes to locate.” (§ 47614, subd. (b).) The court rejected WSCS’s arguments that the District had not complied with its obligations under Proposition 39, and it denied the writ petition in this respect. We affirm.


1. Charter Schools Act and Proposition 39

The Legislature enacted the Charter Schools Act of 1992 (§ 47600 et seq.) “to provide opportunities for teachers, parents, pupils, and community members to establish and maintain schools that operate independently from the existing school district structure.” (§ 47601.) “Charter schools are public schools ‘“free from most state laws pertaining uniquely to school districts.”’ [Citation.] The freedom granted to charter schools is intended to promote choice and innovation, and to stimulate ‘competition within the public school system.’” (California Charter Schools Assn. v. Los Angeles Unified School Dist. (2015) 60 Cal.4th 1221, 1228 [185 Cal.Rptr.3d 556, 345 P.3d 911] (Cal. Charter Schools Assn.).) Persons wishing to establish a charter school do so by submitting a petition for establishment to the governing board of a school district. The petition is signed by a specified percentage of either teachers or parents and provides detailed information about the school’s proposed operations. (§ 47605, subds. (a)(1), (g); Ridgecrest Charter School v. Sierra Sands Unified School Dist. (2005) 130 Cal.App.4th 986, 992 [30 Cal.Rptr.3d 648] (Ridgecrest).) After reviewing the petition and holding a public hearing on the matter, the governing board shall grant the petitioners a charter “if it is satisfied that granting the charter is consistent with sound educational practice.” (§ 47605, subd. (b).) If the governing board denies the petition, the petitioners may submit the petition to the county board of education, and if the county board denies the petition, the petitioners may submit it to the state board of education. (§ 47605, subd. (j).) “In reviewing petitions for the establishment of charter schools..., the chartering authority shall be guided

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by the intent of the Legislature that charter schools are and should become an integral part of the California educational system and that establishment of charter schools should be encouraged.” (§ 47605, subd. (b).)

Once established, charter schools have limited means of getting public funds to cover the cost of facilities. (Cal. Charter Schools Assn., supra, 60 Cal.4th at p. 1228.) If they do not have enough funds to rent or build their own facilities, charter schools must often rely on facilities controlled by the school districts with which they compete. (Ibid.) “Before the adoption of Proposition 39, a charter school was entitled ‘to use, at no charge, facilities not currently being used by the school district for instructional or administrative purposes, or that have not been historically used for rental purposes.’ (Former § 47614, as added by Stats. 1998, ch. 34, § 15, p. 202.) In other words, charter schools had access only to public school facilities that districts were not using.” (Ibid.)

In November 2000, the voters approved Proposition 39, which changed how school districts must share facilities with charter schools. (Cal. Charter Schools Assn., supra, 60 Cal.4th at p. 1228; Sequoia Union High School Dist. v. Aurora Charter High School (2003) 112 Cal.App.4th 185, 189 [5 Cal.Rptr.3d 86].) Proposition 39 amended section 47614 to reflect the people’s intent “that public school facilities... be shared fairly among all public school pupils, including those in charter schools.” (§ 47614, subd. (a).) Section 47614 now provides in pertinent part: “Each school district shall make available, to each charter school operating in the school district, facilities sufficient for the charter school to accommodate all of the charter school’s in-district students in conditions reasonably equivalent to those in which the students would be accommodated if they were attending other public schools of the district.... The school district shall make reasonable efforts to provide the charter school with facilities near to where the charter school wishes to locate, and shall not move the charter school unnecessarily.” (§ 47614, subd. (b), italics added.)

To obtain school district facilities, an existing charter school must submit a written facilities request for the upcoming school year on or before November 1 of the preceding fiscal year. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 5, § 11969.9, subd. (b).) Among other things, the facilities request should set forth a reasonable projection of average daily attendance (ADA) (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 5, § 11969.2, subd. (a)) and provide “information regarding the district school site and/or general geographic area in which the charter school wishes to locate.” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 5, § 11969.9, subd. (c)(1)(E).) The school

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district has until February 1 to respond with “a preliminary proposal regarding the space to be allocated to the charter school.” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 5, § 11969.9, subd. (f).) The charter school shall respond to the preliminary proposal in writing on or before March 1. On or before April 1, the school district must send the charter school a final notification of the space offered to the school. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 5, § 11969.9, subds. (g), (h).)

2. WSCS’s Request for Facilities for the 2014-2015 School Year

The Los Angeles County Office of Education authorized WSCS as a public charter school to serve students in sixth through 12th grades. The school targets Westchester students and students in other communities who have traditionally attended Westchester schools. WSCS’s first year in operation was the 2013-2014 school year. That year, it had approximately 220 students in grades six through 10. A church in Westchester housed the WSCS campus.

In November 2013, WSCS submitted a facilities request to the District for the 2014-2015 school year. WSCS projected ADA of approximately 253.5 students for the year. The facilities request stated that WSCS’s “preferred school sites are located in Westchester, ” where it was then located. The request listed a number of school sites in order of priority. WSCS’s first choice was Orville Wright Middle School (Wright) in Westchester. Its second choice was Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM), also in Westchester. The facilities request further explained that the school’s chartering entity conditioned its approval on the basis that “WSCS’s site ‘shall be in Westchester or one of the target communities identified’” in the school’s petition for establishment. These target communities included View Park-Windsor Hills, Ladera Heights, Playa del Rey, and Playa Vista.

WSCS’s third through ninth choices were located in either Westchester, Playa del Rey, or Playa Vista. The school also would “consider an alternative agreement for sites such as Emerson Manor” (Emerson) in Westchester, which was a former elementary school that the District was using for adult education classes. Assuming the District was unable to offer WSCS space in Westchester, the school was willing to “consider Marina del Rey Middle School, or any other campuses reasonably close to Westchester.” It noted, however, that to accept the Marina del Rey school, it would have to obtain a material revision of its charter from the Los Angeles County Office of Education because the area was not one of the target communities identified in its charter petition.

In January 2014, the District sent WSCS a preliminary proposal of facilities offering 10 classrooms and an administrative room at Crenshaw (also known as Crenshaw Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology Magnet). WSCS responded by letter in February 2014 that it had several concerns

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with the offer of space. First, the offer of space at Crenshaw did not fulfill the District’s obligations under section 47614 to make reasonable efforts to place the school near to its desired location. WSCS asserted Crenshaw was 6.4 miles from Wright and 7.4 miles from WESM, too far for many of its students to travel. WSCS believed there was sufficient space at a number of the schools it identified in its facilities request. Placing WSCS at Crenshaw put it outside the target communities of its charter and would prevent it from serving the students it was designed to serve. Second, WSCS was concerned that the District had not offered it sufficient classrooms and nonteaching space.

In March 2014, the District’s manager for Proposition 39 implementation, Sean Jernigan, contacted the principal of WSCS. According to the principal, Jernigan said the superintendent of the District had agreed to give WSCS space at one of its desired schools-WESM in Westchester. The principal requested 13 classrooms at WESM. She understood Jernigan was going to “get back to [her]” about the number of classrooms, but he never responded further.

Instead, in April 2014, the District sent WSCS a final notification offering it space at Crenshaw. The District argued Crenshaw was near where WSCS wished to locate, insofar as 6.4 miles from Wright or 7.4 miles from WESM was “near” in the context of a school district that spans 710 square miles. WSCS accepted the offer solely for the purpose of ensuring that it had space to operate, in the event that it did not secure appropriate space in Westchester for the 2014-2015 school year.[2] In June 2014, WSCS learned that it could continue to lease the church space it was using for the 2013-2014 school year, and it informed the District that it would not use the Crenshaw space.

3. The Writ Petition and the Court’s Ruling

The day after receiving the District’s final notification of space, WSCS filed the writ petition for an order compelling the District[3] to make reasonable efforts to provide the ...

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