Court Upholds School District Decision Where to Locate Charter School

Lozano Smith Client News Brief
September 2015
Number 50

In Westchester Secondary Charter School v. Los Angeles Unified School District et al., (2015) 237 Cal.App.4th 1226 (Westchester), the court of appeal affirmed that when a charter school makes a facilities request under Proposition 39, the charter school is not entitled to a specific location of its choosing. Instead, a school district need only make reasonable efforts to place a charter school near the charter school's desired location. This was a closely watched case as the California Charter Schools Association filed an amicus brief in support of the charter school.

Under the Education Code, a charter school may request facilities from the school district in which it operates and the district is obligated to "make reasonable efforts to provide the charter school with facilities near to where the charter school wishes to locate." (Ed. Code § 47614(b).) The facilities request process occurs over several months and involves various steps, including a charter school's initial written request, a school district's preliminary proposal, a charter's response to the proposal, and a school district's final notification of the space offered. (Cal. Code. Regs., tit. 5, § 11969.9(g)-(h).)

In November 2013, Westchester Secondary Charter School (WSCS) submitted a facilities request to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) for the 2014-2015 school year. The request noted that the charter school preferred a site located in Westchester, and listed nine school sites in order of preference. However, the site that the district offered to WSCS was not one of the nine sites listed in the charter school's facilities request. Instead, LAUSD offered the charter school facilities at a site located in Crenshaw-6.4 miles from the charter school's first desired school site and 7.4 miles from its second desired school site.

At trial, the charter school alleged that LAUSD had failed to make reasonable efforts to place the school near its desired location. The trial court disagreed and the court of appeal affirmed, concluding that the charter school's facilities request stated that the school would consider facilities "reasonably close" to Westchester, the school's desired neighborhood, and that the district had timely offered WSCS a school site only 2.53 miles from the boundary of the Westchester neighborhood. The court of appeal further noted that previous cases had determined that greater distances were "near" a desired location. The court of appeal held that the relevant consideration was the distance from the offered facilities to the requested geographic area (e.g. the Westchester neighborhood), not the distance to the requested school site.

Westchester indicates that a school district is still given discretion over the assignment of its facilities. The court of appeal ruled that LAUSD had not abused its discretion in making its offer to WSCS because the school district had a reasonable basis for its decision. LAUSD conducted a "comprehensive capacity assessment of each school" to determine space availability. Additionally, LAUSD demonstrated that placing the charter school at the charter's first-choice site would cause safety, educational, scheduling and operational challenges among the eight existing programs at that site. Moreover, an alternate site WSCS had requested was not "reasonably equivalent" as that site did not serve the same grade levels as WSCS. (Ed. Code § 47614(b); Cal. Code Regs., tit. 5, § 11969.1(b).)

As Westchester demonstrates, a school district that offers facilities to a charter school must make reasonable efforts to locate the charter school near its desired location. However, "desired location" does not mean "exact location." When making facilities offers, a school district should consider the "reasonable efforts" it can make in light of Westchester including: timely responding to a charter school, assessing space availability, explaining why a charter school was placed at one site over another, attempting to minimize the distance between the site(s) offered to the extent reasonable, the geographic area stated in the facilities request, and determining how your school district's policies may impact facilities request offers.

If you have any questions regarding the Westchester decision or about charter school issues in general, please contact one of our nine offices located statewide. You can also visit our website, follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or download our Client News Brief App.
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As the information contained herein is necessarily general, its application to a particular set of facts and circumstances may vary. For this reason, this News Brief does not constitute legal advice. We recommend that you consult with your counsel prior to acting on the information contained herein.