Charter high school seeking to open in Costa Mesa clashes with Newport-Mesa Unified
When leaders of Vista Charter Public Schools set out to open a new high school in Costa Mesa that would offer an innovative career-focused curriculum with small class sizes to some 500 students, it seemed they’d done their homework.
They located a 37,455-square-foot, two-story office building at 1620 Sunflower Ave. in an industrial part of town where large-scale cannabis manufacturing and distribution is allowable by law but kept behind closed doors.
The site has ample parking, more than enough for the 51 staff members who’d be employed at the new site of Vista Meridian Global Academy, and is near the Santa Ana River bike trail, on which students could bicycle to and from school each day.
Having a high school campus would allow the nonprofit charter to serve freshman, sophomore and junior students, currently taking classes in temporary digs at a Vista-owned elementary and middle school campus in Santa Ana, and add senior-level classes.
It appeared to be a perfect fit. And so, school officials set about introducing themselves to neighboring businesses and institutions. They reached out to retail complex South Coast Collection, aka SoCo, to the south and nearby St. Barnabas Orthodox Church and FedEx. They even joined the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce.
“We really want to focus on getting started on the right foot, building strong, lasting, mutually beneficial partnerships with our neighbors,” Vista Meridian Principal Trent Speier told city planning commissioners Monday in a hearing for a conditional use permit to operate at the site.
There was just one entity the charter school seemed to have left out of its many rounds of introductions to the Costa Mesa community — Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
The public district, which serves students in Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, not only stands to lose enrollment to the charter high school but also the funding for each district student who attends.
The issue of whether and how Vista leaders informed NMUSD of its plans came to a head at Monday’s planning commission meeting, where panelists were tasked with determining whether to issue a use permit for the school.
During the hearing, commissioners asked whether charter leaders had sought out a partnership with Newport-Mesa Unified.
Scott Drapkin, the city’s assistant director of Developmental Services, explained Vista Meridian Global Academy had obtained approval from the Orange County Board of Education through a process that legally supersedes local district approval.
“This school actually already has permission to operate from the county school district,” Drapkin told commissioners.
California education code allows charter operators to obtain approval from a board of education in counties in which they hope to do business. It requires petitioners to give public school districts where they plan to operate a facility 30 days’ notice of their intent to seek a countywide charter.
Vista Meridian Global Academy — created through a material revision of an earlier countywide charter obtained by Vista Charter Public Schools for a campus in Santa Ana — was granted its own countywide status in a 4-0 vote by the Board of Education on June 1, 2022.
Prior to that, in January, Vista Charter Public Schools Supt. Don Wilson sent Newport-Mesa Unified Supt. Wes Smith the required notification letter indicating, “The countywide petition would allow Vista Meridian Global Academy to operate a new school within the boundaries of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.”
However, in an email to Smith provided by NMUSD and dated March 23, 2022, Wilson indicated otherwise.
“Firstly, I want to reassure you that we do not have any current or future plans to expand into your district,” Wilson said, stating the countywide charter would serve only students of Vista’s current TK-12 system in Santa Ana.
He explained the only reason for the countywide charter was to allow Vista Meridian Global Academy to collaborate with Costa Mesa’s Orange Coast College on a career technical education program that would allow students to earn dual enrollment credits.
“We have included Newport-Mesa in our countywide petition because of a growing relationship with Orange Coast College and a future CTE collaboration and for no other reason,” Wilson continued in the email. “We believe that there will be zero impact for the Newport Mesa district and schools.”
NMUSD Assistant Supt. Jeff Trader, however, holds a different view.
Speaking in public comment at Monday’s planning commission meeting, the chief business officer claimed Vista Meridian violated the state’s charter school regulations by neither informing the district of its intentions, nor identifying the Sunflower Avenue high school in its countywide charter petition.
“Vista Meridian did not provide notice to NMUSD of the intent to locate in the district,” Trader said. “Contrary to that, Vista Meridian expressly informed the district it would not locate in the district’s boundaries.”
Trader further rebutted claims made by Vista officials that the new charter high school would not be taking any money from the public school district, as it would be paid for by per-pupil funding from the state.
He maintained Newport-Mesa Unified — as a community funded district that operates from its property taxes and other local funds rather than state funding — would have to forfeit money for each NMUSD student that attended Vista Meridian.
“I assure you the charter will invoice the district for almost $6 million for both residents and nonresident attendants,” he said, clarifying the district could seek reimbursement for those students coming to Vista Meridian from outside Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.
Although commissioners were advised their role in the matter was only to consider whether the project was in line with Costa Mesa’s land use and zoning regulations, several panelists expressed their own concerns about the placement of a school at the Sunflower Avenue site.
Commissioner Jon Zich said he could not find the school use compatible with surrounding cannabis distribution and manufacturing businesses in the city’s “Green Zone.”
Chair Adam Ereth took issue with traffic queuing scenarios that seemed implausible and with Vista Meridian’s plan to keep its 500 students entirely indoors during the school day.
“Keeping children inside with no outdoor play is not good,” he said. “So when you talk about having programs that meet or exceed the current standards we have here in the school district, I find that it fails miserably in that category.”
Vista superintendent responds
In a phone interview Saturday, Wilson explained he and his colleagues were interested in obtaining a countywide status for Vista Meridian, only to allow for the creation of small satellite “pod” classrooms on college campuses within the dual enrollment network.
Separate plans were in place, however, for a building that could accommodate Vista’s currently enrolled high school students.
At the time the March 2022 email to NMUSD’s Supt. Smith was sent, charter school officials were looking at a building in Garden Grove to house their current high school students, but those plans eventually fell through.
Vista leaders learned that September about the building on Sunflower, but by that time the countywide charter had already been established.
“In retrospect, I wish there was more communication between Newport-Mesa and ourselves prior to the planning commission,” Wilson said, explaining he reached out to the district following the Nov. 27 planning commission meeting.
“We look forward to working closely and collaboratively with the Newport-Mesa Unified School District going forward.”
Responding to the commission’s denial, Wilson said Saturday Mayor John Stephens on Nov. 28 filed for a reconsideration of the use permit through a de novo review by the Costa Mesa City Council.
Because the council will be reviewing the proposal afresh, at a date not yet determined, Vista leaders are not required to file a formal appeal, Wilson said.
Charter officials anticipate moving into the Costa Mesa building in April 2024, after the Santa Ana school’s spring break.
3:01 p.m. Dec. 2, 2023: This story was updated to include remarks from Vista Charter Public Schools Supt. Don Wilson, taken from an interview Saturday.
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