California's Highest Court Provides Some Guidance Regarding School District Obligations To Charter Schools Under Proposition 39

April 10, 2015 | Bulletin No. 1246372.1

In California Charter Schools Assoc. v. Los Angeles Unified School District, et. al. (April 9, 2015, S20861) --- Cal.App.4th ---, the California Supreme Court found, in disagreement with the Court of Appeal below, that the District's use of districtwide teacher-to-student class size "norming ratios" rather than counting classrooms in charter schools' comparison group schools when determining how many classrooms to offer charter schools, was inconsistent with the Proposition 39 regulations.  In addition, the Court clarified that when a school district counts the inventory number of classrooms in the comparison group of schools it is only obligated to count those classrooms that are "provided to" students in those comparison group schools. 

Proposition 39 – Reasonably Equivalent Classroom Space

Proposition 39 ("Prop. 39") obligates school districts to make available to an eligible 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."  (Ed. Code section 47614.)  The standard or benchmark for this "reasonably equivalent" determination is the charter school's comparison group of schools as it is identified per the Prop. 39 implementing regulations. 

Regarding the provision of reasonably equivalent classroom space, the Prop. 39 regulations, Section 11969.3(b)(1) provides: “Facilities made available by a school district to a charter school shall be provided in the same ratio of teaching stations (classrooms) to ADA [Average Daily Attendance] as those provided to students in the school district attending comparison group schools.  . . .  The number of teaching stations (classrooms) shall be determined using the classroom inventory prepared pursuant to California Code of Regulations, title 2, section 1859.31, adjusted to exclude classrooms identified as interim housing.”  As the Court noted, this inventory per Section 1859.31 includes "any classrooms" used for purposes, including: “for which a contract was signed for the construction or acquisition of facilities"; "shops, science laboratories, computer laboratories, or computer classrooms"; "used for preschool programs"; "converted to any non-classroom purpose including use by others"; and "included in a closed school." 

Decision

The District's position, with which the California Court of Appeal agreed, was that the use of teacher-to-student class size norming ratios to determine how many classrooms to offer a charter school meets the Prop. 39 standard by accommodating charter school students in conditions reasonably equivalent to those in which the students would be accommodated if they were otherwise attending public schools of the district. 

The California Charter School Association sought declaratory relief from the Supreme Court regarding the meaning of the Prop. 39 regulations at issue.  The limited question before the Court was whether the District's use of norming ratios complies with Prop. 39.  While recognizing the District's use of norming ratios may be more administratively efficient especially given its size, the Court held that the District must prospectively comply with Prop. 39 regulation section 11969.3(a) by using the comparison group schools, rather than districtwide norming ratios, in calculating the number of classrooms to make available to a charter school in response to a Prop. 39 facilities request. 

As part of its opinion, the Court provided some guidance regarding Prop. 39 regulation section 11969.3 and what types of classrooms may be excluded from the comparison group schools classroom inventory when counting the number of classrooms.  Recognizing Section 11969.3(b)(1) states that the number of classrooms in the comparison group schools "shall" be determined using the inventory prepared pursuant to Section 1859.31, the Court agreed with the District and concluded that only those classrooms "provided to" non-charter K-12 public school district students should be counted.  The Court found that the inventory provides a "starting point" and districts are not obligated to count all rooms listed in that inventory – only those provided to district students. 

The Court specifically found that since classrooms used for preschool or adult education, and classrooms used by other charter schools are not "provided to" a district's non-charter K-12 public school students, a district is not obligated to count those classrooms when determining the ADA to classroom ratio for allocating classrooms to charter schools under Prop 39.  The Court also concluded that counting classrooms "provided to" district students is not the same as counting only those classrooms the district elects to staff with a teacher specifically assigned to that classroom  - reasoning that to do so would work to impute to charter schools the staffing decisions made by the District.  

Finally, the Court recognized that site specific factors may impact the determination of what classrooms are "provided to" district students for purposes of calculating the ADA/classroom ratio for a particular comparison group school but did not weigh-in on whether any other particular types of rooms should or should not be included in the "provided to" inventory subset, expressly declining to address the specific example of whether a room formerly used for K-12 classroom instruction but currently used for storage of K-12 supplies would be a teaching station "provided to" students under Regulation 11969.3.

What This Means to You

The following three-part process outlined by the Court and consistent with the Prop. 39 regulations should be followed by school districts when responding to a charter school's Prop. 39 request for classroom space: 

(1) Identify the comparison group schools for a charter school as prescribed by Section 11969.3(a).

(2) Count the number of classrooms in the comparison group schools using the Section 1859.31 inventory adjusted to reflect only those classrooms “provided to” students in the comparison group schools.  Districts may exclude from the comparison group inventory those classrooms used for preschool, adult education, and classrooms used by other charter schools.

(3) Take the resulting number and use it as the denominator in the ADA/classroom ratio for allocating classrooms to a charter school based on its projected ADA. 

While the Court has provided some guidance by identifying which specific type of rooms a school district may exclude from its comparison group school inventory as part of its Prop. 39 classroom allocation determination, school districts will still need to determine on an individual school site specific basis which other types of rooms in the inventory should be counted.

Questions

If you have any questions concerning the content of this Legal Alert, please contact the following from our office, or the attorney with whom you normally consult.

William Schuetz | 916.321.4500