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Charter school sues Sausalito Marin City district over budget cuts

Willow Creek Academy alleges $1 million in cuts denies them of ‘full and fair funding’

Willow Creek Academy, a charter school in Sausalito. (IJ file photo/2011)
Willow Creek Academy, a charter school in Sausalito. (IJ file photo/2011)

Willow Creek Academy charter school in Sausalito has sued the Sausalito Marin City School District and Marin County Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke to block the district’s plan to cut $1 million from the charter school budget for the 2019-20 school year.

Willow Creek Academy board President Kurt Weinsheimer, in a statement accompanying a copy of the 35-page lawsuit filed Tuesday in Marin Superior Court, said the cutbacks, which represent 25 percent of the charter school budget, deny the charter “full and fair funding and equivalent facilities” as required by California law.

“Unfortunately, we have reached the point where the district must be held accountable for its unwillingness to engage in dialogue and its unjust treatment of so many of our district’s students,” Weinsheimer said in the statement. “WCA educates 80 percent of district students, who come from a diverse set of backgrounds and family circumstances.

“We have a responsibility to protect the students from these harmful cuts, which will unfairly punish the children and their families for attending the public charter and not the traditional school,” he added. “It shouldn’t matter which public school they attend; all kids deserve strong support to learn.”

Sausalito Marin City School District Interim Superintendent Terena Mares issued the following response to the lawsuit Wednesday:

“It’s unfortunate that it has come to this,” Mares said in an email. “Over the past few weeks, and continuing through this week, the district has been in productive discussions with Willow Creek Academy over shared costs for special education. District officials also had a meeting scheduled for Friday, March 8 with WCA board members to discuss our offer for facilities. This lawsuit changes how we will engage in those discussions.”

Also on Wednesday, the district posted notice of a special board meeting to be held at 4:30 p.m. Thursday at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, 200 Phillips Drive, Marin City. The meeting includes a closed session in which the board will discuss the Willow Creek lawsuit.

Willow Creek’s action follows a tumultuous public district board meeting Feb. 14 in which leaders, staff and parents of the charter school protested the district’s budgetary plans, which would take effect July 1, calling them a “breach of trust.” The district has said the changes, which would require the charter school to assume between $700,000 and $800,000 worth of maintenance and utilities costs at the Willow Creek school building — plus an estimated $200,000 or $300,000 in other costs — are necessary to eliminate deficit spending. The district is already under harsh scrutiny by the state Attorney General’s Office for allegations it is running a segregated school at Bayside MLK and violating state anti-discrimination laws.

More than 250 people attended the meeting, which also featured strong testimonials from residents and staff who support academic upgrades and a community school concept at Bayside MLK, which has just over 100 students and is predominantly black. Willow Creek, with just over 400 students, is about 40 percent white and the rest students of color or mixed ethnicity.

“Half of our students are classified as ‘high-need,’ which means they are low income or English learner students,” Weinsheimer said in the statement. “These are the kids who would be most hurt by these reckless funding decisions by the district.”

The complaint filed by Willow Creek cites violations of the 1992 Charter School Act and the equal protection clause of the state constitution. It also accuses Burke and the district of “breach of fiduciary duties,” in that state law requires them to act for the good of all students at all schools. The suit asks the court to restore fair funding to the charter school and to “enter a declaratory judgment declaring that (Burke and the district), individually and collectively, have a duty to act in the best interests of all public school students in the district and not to elevate the interests of students at one public school over the interests of those at another public school (i.e. traditional or charter).”

The charter argues that its students receive less than $10,000 per student according to a funding formula set by the state but administered through the district, while the Bayside MLK students receive “more than $40,000” per student (the district says $37,000) under the funding formula, because they have more need. The charter alleges that the district has $3.4 million in surplus from its property tax revenue, but the district says it must remit at least $3.4 million to Willow Creek to cover the per-student financing.

District trustees at the Feb. 14 meeting declined comment, as they say they are compelled by the Attorney General’s Office to keep negotiations secret on what will be done to address the alleged violations of state anti-discrimination law. The situation is also further muddied by the recusal of district Trustee Josh Barrow, who has stated publicly that the Attorney General’s Office alleges he may have a conflict of interest in making any decisions about the district’s schools because he lives within 500 feet of Bayside MLK in Marin City but he has children who attend Willow Creek in Sausalito.

Weinsheimer, in a letter Tuesday to Willow Creek parents and staff, said he was hopeful that some resolution could be reached so that both schools in the district are treated fairly.

“With $9 million in total revenues, both schools can be fully funded if we allocate fairly and spend wisely,” Weinsheimer said in the letter. “The district has plenty of resources to make both schools work without taking from either school.”