State won't hear appeal of Cayucos student transfer decision

ktanner@thetribunenews.comOctober 2, 2013 

Coast Union High School in Cambria.

JAYSON MELLOM — jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Pleasant Valley School contracts out middle school grades; in fact, it operates its own middle school. Also, competitive swimmer Tess Endersby of Cayucos wants to attend Morro Bay High School.

The California Department of Education won’t even consider ruling on a petition to transfer Cayucos high school students to the San Luis Coastal Unified School District from Coast Unified School District in Cambria, effectively killing that transfer movement by parents.

But the legal reason for the state’s decision apparently wasn’t one that anybody anticipated.

Lead petitioner and parent Gretchen Ross said Wednesday that the “petition’s dead. It never should have gone forward in the first place. I was advised to do the wrong thing by the county Office of Education.” However, Ross said in an email the day before that “there are options,” and “lawyers are being consulted.”

The County Committee on School District Organization had denied the territory-transfer petition about a year ago. Soon thereafter, Ross and San Luis Coastal filed an appeal with the state Department of Education, where it’s been under review ever since.

It’s a confusing issue. Even Julian Crocker, county superintendent of schools, calls the ruling and the situation “a bit complicated” and “a very interesting turn of events, to say the least.”

According to a Sept. 20 letter Crocker received from the state Department of Education, that department’s legal division has determined that the state Board of Education “is unable to hear the appeals” because the proposed action doesn’t fit any of the Education Code’s definitions of “territory transfer,” which is the process of moving an area of land from one school district to another. The department’s legal opinion is “that the proposed transfer (under the conditions stated in the petition) is not permitted by the education code.”

Crocker said the code’s provision for territory transfer “only basically envisions a situation where there is actual unification involved,” where districts are merging, such as happened in 1972 when, according to a recent historical report, Cayucos and two smaller districts consolidated with Cambria to form the Coast Joint Union High School District. The elementary school districts remained separate.

The code “does not provide for an elementary school district to transfer into a unified school district, as they want to do here,” Crocker said.

Cayucos was determined to be a “feeder high school district” to the Coast district.

The state legal division apparently believes that the transfer to San Luis Coastal “would result in the Cayucos district being completely subsumed within” the larger district, which could ultimately result in the dissolution of the Cayucos Elementary School District. That was “not what is described in the petition” as being what the parents wanted, according to the writer of the state’s letter, Peter Foggiato, division director of the Department of Education’s school fiscal services division.

In effect, if the state had taken action, it would have caused an unintended consequence that nobody wanted, dissolving a district that isn’t even really involved in this action, other than by promoting its eighth-grade students into high school. It’s so uninvolved, according to its Superintendent Jim Brescia, that he calls it the Switzerland of the negotiations.

According to the letter, the remaining options for Cayucos parents who want their high schoolers at Morro Bay High, Crocker said, are for the elementary district “to dissolve entirely and become part of San Luis Coastal,” an option that would meet the state’s intent to unify high school districts. Or “Cayucos could petition to become a unified district within itself, K-12 rather than K-8. Then, without resources to run a high school, technically they could contract with San Luis Coastal to operate the high school.”

Neither option would be a speedy one, he added.

The second option is much less common, he said, but there a few precedents in the state, mostly very small, rural districts, that contract for middle school operation.

Some Cayucos parents say they want the transfer because Morro Bay is about 11 miles closer to Cayucos than Cambria, and there’s a presumably safer, four-lane route to the former, rather than the two-lane drive to the latter. Also, some say their students already have sports, social and extracurricular ties to Morro Bay, but no links with Cambria.

According to Cayucos parent Eliane Endersby, if Cayucos high school students “are doing any sports or extracurricular activities, the parents can find themselves driving to Cambria four times in one day.”

Endersby wants her daughter Tess to attend Morro Bay High because the student is a dedicated, competitive swimmer. Morro Bay High has a swim team; Coast Union High doesn’t even have a pool. Endersby now anticipates “having to rely on interdistrict transfer to get our child to Morro Bay High,” a process with far-from-guaranteed results.

The situation is complicated further because all three districts are “basic aid,” getting most of their funding from property taxes rather than state funds. Money to educate each student stays with the home district rather than following the student who transfers to another district.

Crocker said he hopes parents will meet with him and representatives of the districts to find a way to settle the matter amicably with “some kind of an arrangement in which kids could attend whatever high school they want to attend, and the money would follow. My effort will be to try to get that going.”

Del Clegg, president of the Coast Unified district, said some new joint efforts between the districts — ranging from rearranged bus schedules to shared dances and providing iPads for Cayucos middle schoolers — could help foster the new relationship.

“We’re trying to do a better job at doing a better job,” he said. “This is really about the kids.”

Something’s working, he said. In a county with above-average truancy rates the past three years, “Coast has a 97 percent attendance rate.”

Calls made to San Luis Coastal representatives were not returned in time for this story.

The back story

Community surveys about transferring Cayucos high schoolers to San Luis Coastal Unified School District were circulated in early 2012. A petition requesting that transfer was certified May 16 with 556 verified signatures (520 were needed). The County Committee on School District Organization held hearings in June. A consultant’s report, which recommended not approving the petition, was submitted Sept. 19. The committee voted 7-2 Oct. 10 not to approve, a decision appealed almost immediately to the state Department of Education.

If you go ...

The Cayucos Elementary School Board is to meet starting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, at the Cayucos Elementary School auditorium, 301 Cayucos Drive, Cayucos. Board President Kerry Friend confirmed on Wednesday that the issue of where Cayucos teens should go to high school will be discussed, along with options for transferring those students to Morro Bay High School.

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