July 2, 2015
On June 19, 2015, the Second District Court of Appeal issued its opinion in Westchester Secondary Charter School v. Los Angeles Unified School District, which provides guidance on how courts will review the reasonableness of facilities offered to charter schools pursuant to Proposition 39. The Court held that the Los Angeles Unified School District (“LAUSD”) complied with its obligations under Proposition 39 and the Court rejected Westchester Secondary Charter School’s (“WSCS”) claim that the LAUSD failed to “make reasonable efforts to provide the charter school with facilities near to where the charter school wishes to locate.”
Westchester Secondary Charter School submitted a facilities request to the LAUSD for the 2014–2015 school year. The facilities request stated that WSCS’s “preferred school sites are located in Westchester” or a targeted community and listed specific sites WSCS preferred. WSCS also specified it would consider using Emerson-Manor (“Emerson”), a former elementary school in Westchester now being used by LAUSD for adult education classes.
The LAUSD offered Crenshaw High School (“Crenshaw”), which is a school located 2.52 miles from the Westchester perimeter and not within any of the targeted communities. WSCS argued that the LAUSD “did not fulfill [its] obligation under [Education Code] section 47614 to make reasonable efforts to place the school near its desired location” and that the LAUSD’s offer was arbitrary and capricious. Specifically, WSCS argued that Crenshaw was over six miles away from WSCS’s top two choices and was too far from WSCS’s target student population.
The Court reasoned that “near” is a flexible concept. “Near” is not defined in Education Code section 47614 and regulatory guidance only places limits on the allocation of facilities outside of a school district’s boundaries. The Court reasoned that the Crenshaw campus was sufficiently near to WSCS’s desired location because it was located in the same geographic area as the facilities WSCS specifically requested. Moreover, the Court emphasized that the LAUSD was faced with seventy-eight requests for space from eligible charter schools, many of which also requested space in WSCS’s desired locations. The Court recognized the LAUSD had to accommodate many different and sometimes competing requests for space.
The Court also examined to what extent the LAUSD needed to disrupt its current operations to provide facilities. The Court held “[w]hen the LAUSD’s offer already fairly accommodates the charter school’s right to facilities near its desired location, the LAUSD is not compelled to consider even more disruption and dislocation to other students to provide the charter school with the exact location it desires.” The court also found that LAUSD’s failure to comply strictly with its own internal policies or guidelines for offering facilities was not, in and of itself, dispositive evidence that LAUSD’s offer was unreasonable. Additionally, evidence that the LAUSD could have provided facilities more beneficial for WSCS is not tantamount to evidence of the LAUSD’s failure to make reasonable efforts as required by Proposition 39.
Furthermore, the Court determined that the LAUSD did not need to offer Emerson. Education Code section 47614 and its implementing regulations require that facilities be shared fairly among charter students and non-charter students. The Court reasoned that because Emerson is a closed school site that operates adult education programs and has not housed any K-12 students since the former elementary school closed several decades ago, the LAUSD gave charter and non-charter students the same consideration. On this basis, the Court held that it could not require the LAUSD to offer WSCS space in facilities likewise not provided to non-charter students, particularly when the LAUSD was able to offer WSCS other facilities near WSCS’s desired location.
Ultimately, the LAUSD met its obligation under Proposition 39 by offering WSCS space at Crenshaw, “an equivalent, grade-alike facility in the same geographic area … and near to WSCS’s desired location in Westchester.”
The Court held in favor of the LAUSD; however, school districts should be cautious when relying on this decision when responding to facility requests. The Court’s determination was based on how the specific facts of this case related to the request and the response. Among other things, the availability of other facilities, number of other requests for facilities, geography and development of the region, and potential disruption to current operations are all case-specific factors that will determine whether a school district’s offer of facilities is reasonable. School districts should consult with legal counsel specializing in charter school issues when responding to facility requests pursuant to Proposition 39.