A prominent Lancaster City Council candidate who runs the Antelope Valley's largest private school has been operating a second campus for about 200 students since September without the required city permit, records show.
George Runner, executive director of Desert Christian Schools, said Monday that a church housing his school's entire fifth- and sixth-grade classes does meet fire and building codes. But he conceded that the school does not have a required city permit to operate at the church.
"On the first look at that, someone could say that's an illegal school. But I don't think the issue has been one where there's any intention to operate illegally," said Runner, who blamed the situation on a series of unexpected complications.
City officials, who received an anonymous complaint from a resident last week, said they intend to allow the makeshift campus to remain open while the school pursues the necessary conditional use permit. The school filed for the permit on Monday after being contacted last week by the city, school officials said.
Desert Christian, a preschool through 12th-grade school with more than 150 staff members and 1,600 students, has its main campus on 15th Street West in Lancaster. Since September, the school has operated seven extra classrooms in rented space at the Central Christian Church building on Pillsbury Street because it had run out of space at its main campus a mile away.
Runner said he believed that the church site had a permit for a school but found out in September that it did not.
Dave Prather, the pastor of Central Christian Church, which is not associated with Desert Christian Schools, said he did not remember ever being asked by Desert Christian officials if his church had the necessary permit for a school. Prather said he was unaware until January that a permit was required.
Bill Davis, Desert Christian's director of operations, said school officials became aware of the permit problem last fall but took no action, figuring that they would be moving to another site by December. But those plans stalled, and officials realized that they would need to use the church as classrooms for the rest of the school year.
Runner and Davis said they began discussing the permit problem with city building and safety officials in December. The two contend that a top city planning official, Brian Ludicke, said months ago that they could wait on the permit. Ludicke could not be reached for comment Monday.
But Brian Hawley, Lancaster's planning director and Ludicke's boss, said Monday that he learned about the permit problem only last week and that he directed the school to file for its permit almost immediately. "Right now, they are operating without a valid use permit," Hawley said.
Filing for a city permit at this point in the school year might be moot, however, since any Planning Commission decision on the application typically would take three to four months, Hawley said. By then, Desert Christian officials say, they plan to be out of the church.
Central Christian received city permission last year to build a new combined church and school facility at Avenue J and 32nd Street West. Runner said he hopes to move his seventh- and eighth-graders there by September, allowing him to bring the fifth- and sixth-graders back to the main campus.
Runner, the founder of the conservative Family Action Network group in the Antelope Valley, is one of 12 candidates vying for two City Council seats in the April 14 election. He has been endorsed by Lancaster Mayor Henry Hearns, a pastor of a church in nearby Littlerock.