By MARTIN ESPINOZA | THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa school officials agreed Friday they will not formally close Doyle Park Elementary School to make way for a French charter school until a Superior Court judge rules on a civil lawsuit challenging the closure.
The district’s newly formed French American Charter School may continue to enroll children and hire staff, but it cannot, for the time being, guarantee parents and prospective employees that the Doyle Park campus is theirs.
These were key legal stipulations hammered out in court Friday between the school district and a group of Doyle Park teachers, parents and community members.
Bob Henry, legal counsel for Santa Rosa school board and district, said, “colloquially speaking, we’re entitled to lead the horse across the pasture and right up to the trough, but we’re not going to let the horse drink.”
The group challenging the controversial school closure had sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the district from taking any steps that would make it impossible for a judge to reverse the decision to close the school.
The group, the Doyle Park Committee for Educational Equity, is represented by two local public interest attorneys and lawyers for a San Francisco-based civil rights group.
In its lawsuit, the group claims the school board’s vote to close Doyle Park was “tainted” by a trustee’s conflict of interest, violated the state education code covering conversion of public schools into charter schools and was harmful to its Latino students.
The district has rejected the claims and insists the school board took appropriate steps to close Doyle Park because of declining enrollment and a resulting financial shortfall. School officials say Doyle Park’s students would be better served at neighboring elementary schools, or at the French charter school itself.
On Friday morning, after Judge Mark Tansil met with attorneys on both sides for about an hour, he asked them to come to some “understanding.” The attorneys negotiated in private for about an hour and a half.
In the resulting stipulations, both sides agreed the court would ultimately decide whether or not Doyle Park should be closed.
In addition, enrollment applications for the French charter school must delete all mention of Doyle Park and its address and families must be notified if and when Doyle Park is permanently closed.
Supporters of the French charter school said the lawsuit is not only an effort to save Doyle Park but an attempt to undermine their charter as well.
Roy Miller, a local criminal defense attorney who is volunteering his legal advice to founders of the French charter school, told Tansil that the suit “could go a long way toward killing this charter.”
After the hearing, Doyle supporters said they were not out to hurt the new charter school.
“Our agreement is not at all intended to destroy the French American Charter School,” said Cecilia Chen, an attorney with the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which is assisting Doyle Park supporters.
“Everyone is in agreement that the French American Charter School is a positive thing for the school district,” she said.
The agreements reached Friday simply state that until the judge renders a decision on the legal challenge, current “hiring and enrollment cannot be tied directly to Doyle Park,” she said.
Tansil said he wanted to expedite discovery and depositions through May. The next court hearing is scheduled for June 7 when Tansil will hear testimony on the legal merits of the lawsuit.