The public hearing at the SBCOE for SBC Polytechnic Academy on July 20 was standing room only. Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu.

Three weeks after holding an informational meeting for the community, the proposed San Benito County Polytechnic Academy (SBCPA) has been met with criticism from school officials. 

San Benito High School District Superintendent Shawn Tennenbaum and Aromas-San Juan Unified District Superintendent Barbara Dill-Varga first voiced their concerns at SBCPA’s public hearing at the San Benito County Office of Education on July 20. 

Dr. Dill-Varga and Dr. Tennenbaum sit in the last two rows, far right, as CEO of Navigator Schools, Dr. Caprice Young, presented on behalf of SBCPA at the July 20 public hearing. Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu.

While the superintendents allege the processing of the petition was not properly followed and that the petition is not complete, Dill-Varga said she is wary of the impact it will have on funding of existing district programs if the charter school is approved.  

While the charter school is receiving funds from the Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports education programs in California schools, Dill-Varga said this may be misleading county residents into thinking the school will not cost them, or that the school will not need additional funding. 

She said if the school is approved, funds from the California Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) that are received by schools on a per pupil basis would be diverted from existing districts. She said she feels the existing schools have a better understanding of students’ needs and already have programs in place.

The charter school’s budget “will come from monies that support us and other county programs and they also want a share of special education SELPA dollars,” she said. “All that money follows them to that charter. That becomes money then that [Hollister and Anzar high schools] don’t have, to have programs for everybody who’s left.”

SBCPA Executive Director Jorge Lopez told BenitoLink he believes the charter school will actually attract special education funding for the county since it is targeting students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out. 

Over 30 supporters attended the public hearing for the charter school. Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu.

“All schools will share equitably in the funding because it is allocated to the schools based on the needs of the special education students being served in each school,” he said.

In response to concerns over securing a campus and dealing with teacher shortage, SBCPA Board President Ariel Hurtado said he is confident that Lopez, “a successful charter leader” can overcome these obstacles, noting that Lopez has opened several successful schools “using existing and new buildings to house students.”

“His success at those schools led to a scalable model to open other charters in the same region,” Hurtado said. 

Questions about process

“We do not believe the process has been handled by the county in an impartial manner or in a manner designed to engage the public in this important decision,” said Tennenbaum.

He said SBCPA should have filed a petition with the districts first before going to the San Benito County Office of Education. 

“The law encourages charter schools to be approved and overseen at the school district level, subject to very limited exceptions,” Tennenbaum told the hearing. “Yet the petitioners have never submitted a charter petition to our district or made any formal inquiry of us about our interest in approving a charter of this nature.”

Hurtado told BenitoLink a notice of the petition was submitted to the school districts 30 days before submitting the petition to the County Office of Education. He added the petition does not need approval from the districts since the school will be open to students within the entire county and therefore is a countywide benefit charter petition. 

While California Law requires charters schools to get approval a school district if they will serve students within that school district, it also allows petitioners to seek approval from the county board of education if they create charter schools that will “serve pupils for whom the county office of education would otherwise be responsible for providing direct education and related services.”

According to the California Education Code, a county board of education may approve a countywide charter only if it finds “the educational services to be provided by the charter school will offer services to a pupil population that will benefit from those services and that cannot be served as well by a charter school that operates in only one school district in the county.” 

Hurtado said the reason why a countywide benefit charter petition was submitted was “due to the unique nature of our school.”

“If we were to resubmit the charter as an in-district school, we would have to make substantial revisions to the program which would disadvantage students,” he said.

Dill-Varga, though, questioned whether the charter aims to serve students who are either falling behind or at risk of falling behind.

“Now it seems it is a school that addresses basically all the student needs we address, too,” she said. “There’s a whole presumption here that we’re not doing anything. If it is targeting student dropouts, why then are they planning to recruit our eighth graders to build a ninth and 10th grade cohort?”

Lopez told BenitoLink the school will provide credit recovery—allowing students to retake courses and earn credits toward their high school diploma—to all students who need it, “especially the disconnected students.” But he said the school’s model also “seeks to identify students who have had challenges in school and help them improve their skills right away, so they don’t fail.”

“We don’t believe students should be ‘required to fail’ before they get the help they need,” Lopez said. “That is at the very core of how our model is different.”  

Petition dispute

Tennebaum and Dill-Varga also questioned why the County Office of Education accepted the petition, which they consider incomplete, as SBCPA didn’t identify the location of its campus, one of 16 elements covered in the charter petition.

An overflow of supporters at SBCPA’s public hearing led to special seating in the lobby at the SBCOE. Photo by Jenny Mendolla Arbizu.

They differ with SBCPA in their interpretation of Element four (p.83) of the SBCPA petition that addresses Education Code Section 47605.6(b)(5)(D), which requires the petitioner to give the “location of each charter school facility that the petitioner proposes to operate.”

Tennenbaum and Dill-Varga say it’s a requirement to provide a precise location of the campus, while SBCPA interprets the code as requiring the name of the city or area the school will service. 

“There is no requirement in the law for the school to provide the end location at the time the charter is being considered,” Lopez said, adding that several facilities are already being considered. “A commitment to a facility cannot be made until the petition is approved by the San Benito County Office of Education Board of Trustees.”

According to the petition, the charter school is seeking a location in Hollister and would likely use interim facilities for the first two years. 

According to EdSource, other required elements include expectations for student performance, description of the school’s structure, resolving disputes and procedures to close the school.

According to the petition, the school will “require approximately 30,000 square feet” to meet the needs of its students and staff by the time it opens July 1, 2024 for 200 students.

San Benito County Superintendent of Schools Krystal Lomanto told BenitoLink it’s premature to state whether the application is complete or not as the July 20 public hearing was to accept the application and initiate the process to review the petition. She said the County Office of Education and the petitioners agreed to extend the review process from 90 days to 120. 

Lomanto said the County Office of Education staff’s findings and recommendations will be published at least 15 days before the board reaches its decision.

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Jenny is a Hollister native who resides in her hometown with her husband and son. She attended Hollister schools, graduated from San Benito High School, and earned her bachelor’s degree in literature...