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In a move that’s being described as a “siege” and an attempted “hostile takeover,” an attorney representing Eureka City Unified School District (ECS) on Friday sent a letter to Glen Senestraro, superintendent of Fortuna Union High School District (FUHSD), demanding that his district relinquish operations of Academy of the Redwoods, a public high school located on the main campus of College of the Redwoods.
The letter says that if the Fortuna district fails to comply, Eureka City Schools “is prepared to initiate litigation against Fortuna in Humboldt County Superior Court to compel Fortuna’s compliance with the law.”
The letter, written by an attorney with Sacramento-based public agency law firm Lozano Smith, argues that because Academy of the Redwoods’ facilities fall within ECS’s geographical boundaries, FUHSD has no legal right to operate the school.
“Because the law is clear on point,” the letter argues, “the [ECS] District believes that the most efficient and least disruptive path to resolve this dispute is that the [ECS] District and Fortuna coordinate with each other, and ultimately their Humboldt County Office of Education and College of the Redwoods partners, to transition the Academy’s operations from Fortuna to the [ECS] District, ideally before the commencement of the 2023-2024 school year.”
Local parents have responded to this demand with concern and indignation, accusing ECS Superintendent Fred Van Vleck of prioritizing enrollment-based financial reimbursement above student wellbeing.
“It seems like it’s a business deal,” said Patty Valtenbergs, whose daughter
attends attended Academy of the Redwoods. She said schools across California are concerned about declining enrollment, which corresponds with declining revenues, but she added that Eureka City Schools appears to be holding student education hostage.
“It’s like a hostile takeover,” she said. “And [ECS] didn’t build [Academy of the Redwoods]. They didn’t have the vision for it. And they’ve let it be for how many years? … If this was for the benefit of the students, they would let the program be and celebrate it.”
Reached by phone, Humboldt County Superintendent of Schools Michael Davies-Hughes said the Academy of the Redwoods early college education program was created more than 17 years ago through a partnership between the Humboldt County Office of Education and College of the Redwoods.
“Five high schools in Humboldt County were involved in this discussion early on — we’re talking [circa] 2003 — about applying for this grant to establish this early college program,” Davies-Hughes said.
He said that he doesn’t personally know the history of how Fortuna Union High School District was selected, but once the program was established it gained momentum and the partnership has “stood the test of time,” serving local students for the past 17 years.
“We see students having options to further their education, and I’m 100 percent supportive of that,” Davies-Hughes said.
In an emailed statement, ECS said, in part, “Academy of the Redwoods is undisputedly located within the Eureka City Schools (ECS) district boundaries. Under state law, this obligates ECS to recognize the Academy as a school within its District.”
“Why now?” wondered Tonya Fleming, whose elder son attends Academy of the Redwoods and whose younger son hopes to do so next year. “It sounds like a hostile takeover and a threat,” she said, referring to the attorney letter.
Fleming, whose family lives just five minutes from the CR campus, said her sons appreciate the camaraderie and small-school atmosphere of Academy of the Redwoods, and she appreciates the school’s individualized education and its focus on preparing students for college. Academy of the Redwoods students often earn Associate of Arts degrees as they work toward graduation.
“I do not think Eureka City Schools would be a good fit for either of my children” Fleming said. “They haven’t gone there a day in their life, for one thing.”
Fortuna administrators aren’t taking the demand from ECS lightly. In response to questions from the Outpost, Senestraro emailed a statement saying FUHSD has successfully operated Academy of the Redwoods for 17 years. He added that ECS was initially offered the program but turned it down.
“Fortuna Union High School District took on this challenge when it was turned down by Eureka City Schools,” Senestraro says in his statement. “Fortuna Union High School District through years of collaboration, relationship building, innovative thinking and problem-solving built the program it is today.”
He goes on to say, “Fortuna Union High School District is entirely prepared to strongly defend and retain this program.”
The district expressed a similar message to parents in an emailed statement sent Tuesday evening.
“FUHSD is disappointed with the demands from ECS to take over [Academy of the Redwoods],” the message reads. It goes on to say, “FUHSD is prepared and committed to defending AR and its students during this siege by ECS.”
This fresh legal conflict arises amid an ongoing dispute concerning inter-district transfers — that is, the process by which parents who live in one district get permission to send their kids to a school in a different district.
Parents discussing the matter on Facebook say Eureka City Schools has routinely denied inter-district transfer requests for Academy of the Redwoods.
The Lozano Smith letter addresses this matter, referring to four pending requests from parents who live within ECS boundaries but want their kids to attend Academy of the Redwoods. ECS has denied those requests, and appeals have been filed with the Humboldt County Office of Education.
The demand letter from Lozano Smith says ECS will not challenge or oppose those appeals because the district “sees it as inevitable” that Academy of the Redwoods will be transferred to its jurisdiction.
“This aside,” the letter continues, “the District maintains that there are other students who reside within the District’s boundaries who have been unlawfully enrolled in the Academy by Fortuna over the years, including recent schools years. If litigation between the District and Fortuna becomes necessary as to the Academy overall, the District intends to simultaneously pursue claims against Fortuna for the unlawful enrollment of District students in the absence of compliance with the interdistrict transfer laws.”
According to the letter, ECS denied the transfer requests because there’s no agreement between ECS and FUHSD and because ECS has “knowledge of Fortuna’s history of unlawful enrollment of [ECS] District students without compliance with applicable laws.”
In his emailed statement, Senestraro says there may be some confusion about FUHSD’s lack of participation in a countywide inter-district transfer agreement.
“Let’s be clear,” his statement reads. “Fortuna Union High School District is absolutely accepting inter-district transfers. Fortuna Union High School District is just not bound to the February 15th deadline that the blanket County-wide agreement requires. Fortuna Union High School District will accept students at any point in the school year. Fortuna Union High School District fully believes in parent/student choice for education for their pupils. Additionally, we believe you can’t put a date or timeline for that choice.”
Davies-Hughes said he likes to see conflicts resolved at the local level, through conversations, but in this case the situation may have progressed beyond the point where such an amicable resolution is possible. With ECS taking a firm position that FUHSD is violating the law, he said, “that is something that unfortunately may have to be played out through the court process.”
Fleming suggested that the Humboldt County Office of Education should assume jurisdiction over Academy of the Redwoods and allow the program to continue with its current staff and faculty.
Davies-Hughes called that an interesting idea.
“I’m open to any opportunity to really see a continuance of that program,” he said. “It’s a wonderful program and pretty unique. As superintendent, I’m open to exploring possibilities for how we can continue supporting students in that program.”
Asked if the Humboldt County Office of Education might play a role in mediating this dispute, Davies-Hughes said it’s possible that the parties might be willing to take a step back and engage in productive discourse.
“I don’t know how likely that is,” he said. “There has to be a willingness from both parties, and they clearly have difference in stance on this. But I’m a willing partner for both school districts to sit down and see what can be done.”
Davies-Hughes said that he understands that the release of this letter from the ECS attorney has generated some uncertainty and anxiety from parents of students and prospective students at Academy of the Redwoods.
“What I will say is that Humboldt County educators have a longstanding history and track record of doing what’s in the best interests of students,” he said. “I’m hopeful and confident that at the end of the day we’ll come to that approach, that we’ll remember that it’s about what’s best for our students.”
Here’s the full statement released today by Senestraro and the Fortuna Union High School District:
Regarding the recent news that Eureka City Schools seeks litigation against Fortuna Union High School District.
Academy of the Redwoods is an Early College High School program that has been operating for 17 years. Academy of the Redwoods is operated successfully by Fortuna Union High School District and has been since its inception in 2005. Eureka City Schools was initially offered the program and turned it down. Fortuna Union High School District took on this challenge when it was turned down by Eureka City Schools. Fortuna Union High School District through years of collaboration, relationship building, innovative thinking and problem-solving built the program it is today. This program not only benefits students of our district but is a unique, beneficial program that is an asset for all county students collectively. Fortuna Union High School District is proud to manage Academy of the Redwoods, a program that offers so much to its students.
Academy of the Redwoods was created by the Humboldt County Office of Education, College of the Redwoods and Humboldt State University. Fortuna Union High School District has and still works closely with College of the Redwoods to ensure the program’s success. Academy of the Redwoods was built as a collective effort of some of our county’s top educational institutions. In the last 17 years, Academy of the Redwoods has graduated hundreds of students with diplomas, degrees and certificates from every part of our county. These Academy of The Redwoods Alumni are some of the brightest, most ambitious forward-thinkers the county has to offer.
Eureka City Schools has made it clear they are trying to take over the program/school. Fortuna Union High School District is entirely prepared to strongly defend and retain this program. Fortuna Union High School has a 17-year track record of success with the program, 17 years of graduating determined, innovative and ambitious students into our community and communities across the nation, 17 years of fantastic, qualified educators pouring their very best efforts into the program, 17 years of smart, responsible fiscal management. We aren’t prepared to let another district come in and take it. We are prepared for many more years of success — bigger, better, more experience and more innovative than ever.
Fortuna Union High School District staff has created a unique program for ALL Humboldt County Students. Academy of the Redwoods proudly serves all students of the greater Humboldt area. Fortuna Union High School District believes in program/school choice. There may be confusion out there about Fortuna Union High School District not participating in the County Wide Inter-district transfer agreement. Let’s be clear, Fortuna Union High School District is absolutely accepting inter-district transfers. Fortuna Union High School District is just not bound to the February 15th deadline that the blanket County-wide agreement requires. Fortuna Union High School District will accept students at any point in the school year. Fortuna Union High School District fully believes in parent/student choice for education for their pupils. Additionally, we believe you can’t put a date or timeline for that choice.
Academy of The Redwoods’ Mission Statement is “Academy of the Redwoods, an Early College High School, uses the Power of Place, an inclusive community, and a supportive environment to inspire and empower a wide spectrum of motivated students. Through a transformative program that incorporates rigorous high school curriculum with college immersion, we prepare all individuals to become contributing members of an ever-changing society.” I think our Academy of The Redwoods mission statement sums it up best. We will use the power of place, our inclusive community and a supportive environment to prevail in this minor but very disruptive setback.
And here’s the statement from Eureka City Schools:
Students attending the Academy of the Redwoods (“Academy”) benefit from the educational services it provides. The Academy is one of many high-quality educational options in our region.
Eureka City Schools remains supportive of students who have requested this educational choice and have complied with applicable transfer laws and procedures. Every district in California is required to follow state laws concerning oversight of public educational programs within their district boundaries and student requests to transfer to a school outside of their home school district. Unfortunately, for a significant number of students attending the Academy, this requirement has not been met.
Academy of the Redwoods is undisputedly located within the Eureka City Schools (ECS) district boundaries. Under state law, this obligates ECS to recognize the Academy as a school within its District. ECS has asked to meet with the Fortuna Union High School District so we can collectively address state requirements concerning district boundaries and prevent any interruption of educational services for students attending the Academy. ECS believes this can successfully be accomplished with the cooperation of the Humboldt County Office of Education and partners at the College of the Redwoods.
ECS is committed to strengthening ongoing partnerships with education institutions in our region so we can collectively meet our required oversight obligations under the law and provide educational services that best prepare all students for successful futures.”
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