Alder Grover Charter School Director Tim Warner (standing, in blue) speaks at a Feb. 1 board meeting at South Bay Union School District. | Ryan Burns.

Eureka City Schools is still playing hardball.

Faced with declining enrollment, ECS Superintendent Fred Van Vleck and his board have taken a hardline stance in recent years, looking to enact, enforce and litigate over rules that might stanch the outflow of students — and the state funding that goes with them.

In the latest move, Eureka City Schools is threatening Alder Grove Charter School with a lawsuit, alleging that the independent-study K-12 school is violating the law by maintaining a facility within ECS attendance boundaries (it has a resource center at 714 F Street) while being chartered through South Bay Union School District, just south of the city.

In a letter sent earlier this month to Alder Grover Director Tim Warner, an attorney with the firm Lozano Smith alleged, “Alder Grove’s location clearly violates the law” and said ECS plans to file a lawsuit by March.

It wouldn’t be the first time that ECS sued a charter school in an effort to keep students from leaving the district. Two years ago ECS filed a suit against Pacific View Charter School over essentially the same issue — operating facilities inside the district while being chartered elsewhere. That case was eventually resolved through a settlement agreement, with Pacific View agreeing to place a cap on the number of Eureka students it has enrolled. 

Van Vleck

James Malloy, the retired former director of Pacific View, is critical of the way Van Vleck and ECS handled the situation, saying there should have been more cooperation. Nevertheless, Malloy said he understands why the ECS board has directed Van Vleck to be aggressive in his attempts to mitigate the loss in students. “That’s what you have to do, protect your own business,” he said.

But he said the situation in Eureka should never have gotten to this point. “Having watched it — I’ve been in Eureka all my life and doing this [working in education] for 45 years — I just think it was poor management over the many years.” Malloy pointed out that Eureka no longer has any elementary schools in the center of town. With Jefferson Elementary School closed since 2006 and Lincoln Elementary closed since 2008 (with the campus now hosting Zoe Barnum High School), Eureka’s elementary schools are all located either east of Myrtle Avenue or south of Harris Street, requiring kids in much of the city to get bussed across town.

“That’s something that has occurred over 15-to-20 years,” Malloy said. “There’s been a long process that schools in the core of Eureka have been shut down.” That’s one reason why parents have chosen to send their kids elsewhere, Malloy suggested. 

Charter schools have become an increasingly popular alternative, in part because some cater specifically to students with special needs. And a significant number of Eureka parents have chosen to send their kids to traditional public schools outside the district. These trends led Van Vleck’s proposal last year to institute a cap on out-of-district transfers. That suggestion was met with significant public pushback, and after another round of negotiations this year, superintendents across the county agreed to continue honoring inter-district transfer requests for the time being


But ECS is still working to bring charter school kids back into the fold. In November Van Vleck sent a four-page letter to Gary Storts, superintendent of South Bay Union School District, making the case — complete with citations of legal precedent and California’s education code — that Alder Grove cannot lawfully be chartered through South Bay. 

Warner says Alder Grove is following the law, and he argues that ECS is taking the wrong approach by resorting to litigation. “It seems like fiscal irresponsibility,” he said. “You should be using those resources to make your schools better, you know?”

Alder Grove’s situation — along with that of hundreds of other independent-study charter schools across the state — was called into question by a 2016 appeals court ruling in Shasta County. At issue in that case — Anderson Union High School District v. Shasta Secondary Home School — was whether California’s charter school law allows an independent-study charter school that’s authorized in one district to maintain a “resource center” in a different district.

The initial ruling was in favor of the home school, but in October 2016 a three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeals overturned that decision, and early last year the State Supreme Court opted to let that ruling stand.

On its face this ruling would seem to favor Eureka City Schools’ position — that if Alder Grove is going to maintain a resource center right in the heart of Eureka then the school needs to be chartered through ECS.

But Warner points to an exception in the state’s education code, 47605.1(d), that he says applies to Alder Grove. That section holds, in part, that a charter school “may establish one site outside the boundaries of the [sponsoring] school district” as long as proper notice is given to both the county superintendent of schools and district where that site is located (Eureka City Schools, in this case), and also the charter school has tried and failed to find a suitable facility within its sponsoring district’s boundaries.

In his November letter to Storts, Van Vleck insists that Alder Grove cannot claim that exemption, in part because, “The exemption contemplates all of these actions take place before a charter school’s petition is approved by the chartering school district.”

In a recent interview, Warner said it’s a bit ironic that Van Vleck and ECS are now so determined to bring Alder Grove into their jurisdiction. “Eleven years ago, when the school was forming, we wanted to submit [the charter] to Eureka. They were totally not interested,” he said. “They thought charter schools were like bell bottoms” — a fad that would soon pass. Alder Grove instead wound up chartering through South Bay Union School District.

While Alder Grove is rooted in an independent-study model, catering to kids who may not thrive in a typical brick-and-mortar classroom environment, administrators rented three rooms at the South Bay School campus in order to maintain an office and offer “enrichment classes” for students who wanted to come once or twice a week, Warner said.

The school eventually outgrew its three-room allotment on the South Bay campus and, after a search, found its current facility in Eureka, which continues to serve as a resource center for Alder Grove’s nearly 500 students.

At a Feb. 1 special meeting of the South Bay Union School District Board of Trustees, where the board was considering whether or not to renew Alder Grove’s charter under threat of litigation, Warner got up and explained why the school’s current facility, a roughly 12,000-square-foot building near the Eureka Inn, is ideal for their needs.

It has offices for staff and administrators, meeting rooms for teachers, students and families, a computer lab, special education offices, classrooms and even a stage for performances. 

“Multiple facility searches in South Bay’s district, as well as throughout Humboldt County, have shown that there are no [other] available buildings big enough for Alder Grove, and certainly none with adequate parking and ADA compliance,” Warner said to the board and members of the public who attended the meeting. “I wish there were. Sometimes it feels like we are bursting at the seams.”

Warner went on to criticize Van Vleck and ECS for attempting to limit educational options, and he praised South Bay for their support. “South Bay Union School District isn’t trying to limit the choices for education in Humboldt County, but to offer more. After all, forcibly limiting choices is not in the spirit of our community here on the North Coast,” Warner said.

The Outpost reached out to Van Vleck for a response, but messages left via email and voicemail were not returned.

A number of Alder Grove parents attended the Feb. 1 meeting and voiced their support for the school. David Kaftal, for example, said Alder Grove has been “just a godsend” for his family. “My son has Down syndrome,” Kaftal said. “He has blossomed, he has thrived in the environment at Alder Grove. I can’t imagine another environment where he would have done anything other than just kind of cave in on himself.”

Other parents also expressed appreciation for the non-traditional learning environment. One mom said her six-year-old daughter, who’s on the autism spectrum, is “truly thriving with the levels of support we get at Alder Grove. It’s been amazing to see her truly understand and learn.”

Patty Marsh is both a teacher at Alder Grove and a parent of a student there. She said her daughter, now 14, is already in her second semester at College of the Redwoods earning transferrable credits on her way to earning an Associate of Science degree, “all before she gets her high school diploma.”

Marsh added that she works with many high-risk students who she believes would have fallen through the cracks in a different environment. “I don’t know where my kid would be without Alder Grove Charter School,” she said.

Fellow teacher Lorraine Parnell said she helped write Alder Grove’s charter and has taught there since its inception. “Several students came to our school because they’d been bullied,” she said. “They don’t fit in the little box the rest of education offers. I think we really offer a good service to kids.”

The meeting served as a “public preview” for Alder Grove’s petition to re-charter with South Bay Union School District. Technically, the petition was to charter a whole new institution, called Alder Grove Charter School 2. The name change was made at the suggestion of South Bay’s legal counsel, and in light of the Shasta County court case, in an effort to comply with the exact language of the state’s charter school law and sidestep the objections raised by Van Vleck.

The South Bay board met again last week and voted unanimously (with one trustee absent) to approve the charter. South Bay Superintendent Gary Storts told the Outpost on Tuesday that the board felt Alder Grove gave proper notice to Eureka City Schools and conducted a thorough facilities search, as required by the education code.

“We’ve worked with a legal outfit to review everything, and we feel confident that we have fulfilled our duties as an LEA,” or local educational agency, Storts said.

So far, Eureka City Schools hasn’t followed through with its threat of litigation. 

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Note: This post has been corrected. It initially said Alder Grove is K-8; it’s actually K-12.