Costa Mesa council rejects plan for charter high school in city’s cannabis Green Zone

Vista Public Charter Schools hope to open a high school, Vista Meridian Global Academy, in Costa Mesa.
Vista Public Charter Schools want to open a high school at 1620 Sunflower Ave. in Costa Mesa but cannot obtain the needed use permit.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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Charter school leaders who’d hoped to run a high school out of a Costa Mesa office building — a move challenged by public school district officials who claimed they were not properly notified of such intentions — will have to look elsewhere.

That was the determination of the Costa Mesa City Council Tuesday, as members supported a Nov. 27 vote by the city’s planning commission to deny a conditional use permit for Vista Meridian Global Academy to operate at 1620 Sunflower Ave.

Commissioners maintained the school use was not compatible for the parcel within an area north of the 405 Freeway known as the Green Zone, which allows for non-retail manufacturing, distribution and home delivery of cannabis products.


They further took issue with a proposal by officials from Vista Charter Public Schools to conduct the entirety of its on-campus offerings within the confines of the 37,455-square-foot building, claiming the lack of open space would be detrimental to students’ health and well-being.

Council members Tuesday were to hear the matter as a de novo review rather than an appeal of the commission decision, meaning deliberations would not be based on the Nov. 27 meeting but from a fresh consideration of facts.

However, several panelists came to the same conclusions as their colleagues on the Planning Commission, despite assurances from Vista leaders about the community benefits the school would bring through a globally focused, hands-on STEAM curriculum and a partnership with Orange Coast College that would let high schoolers earn college credits.

“Our vision is to create a transformative high school learning experience,” Vista Charter Public Schools Supt. Don Wilson told the council. “We have always strived to work really well with our neighboring schools and districts.”

Leaders of Vista Meridian Global Academy obtained countywide approval and set about opening a Costa Mesa campus, after telling Newport-Mesa Unified they had no plans to operate inside district boundaries.

Dec. 2, 2023

That was a point Newport-Mesa Unified School District leaders took issue with.

Supt. Wes Smith has acknowledged that while the district received a basic form letter from Wilson in January 2022, indicating the countywide charter petition could impact NMUSD, Wilson personally assured him in an email two months later “we do not have any current or future plans to expand into your district.”

In California, charters are considered public schools and, as such, are entitled to receive the same per-pupil funding as any other district and may even be granted, through the state’s Proposition 39, the right to operate from unused school district facilities.

Wilson informed the council Tuesday if the use permit were denied, Vista Meridian would have no choice but to take building space from NMUSD, as allowed under the law.

“A ‘no’ vote does not stop our charter from existing,” he said. “However, not getting our building will actually force us to use Prop. 39 and require us to locate in Newport-Mesa, a situation that will not be in the best interest of Newport-Mesa or Vista.”

Smith reminded council members California law also requires charter operators to properly notify districts in cities where they wish to locate a school before a charter petition is granted. He said Vista leaders failed to do that.

“There’s another legal interpretation, if that authorization wasn’t properly given, that we’re not obligated [to give up district space],” Smith said. “We welcome that conversation with them, and we look forward to it, if you deny this appeal.”

NMUSD Assistant Supt. Jeff Trader said the district would be forced to forfeit approximately $12,327 in local funds for every Newport-Mesa student who was to attend Vista Meridian each year — a figure that, according to Vista’s attendance projections, could amount to an annual loss from $2.9 million to $3.9 million.

Costa Mesa Mayor John Stephens said he viewed land use decisions from a narrow lens, determining a project’s compatibility with the surrounding area based on whether it creates an undue burden on neighbors. In this case, he said, a high school would not do that.

He also sided with parents’ right to choose to send their kids to an all-indoor charter school in a portion of the city where legal marijuana processing and manufacturing is allowable, even if it cost NMUSD funding, saying in that regard charters are no different from private schools.

“It’s not about private school, charter school or public school,” said Stephens, who acknowledged sending his kids to private school. “It’s about parents making choices about where to send their kids, not the City Council.”

The majority of the council disagreed, voting 5-1 to deny Vista the needed permit (Councilman Don Harper, in whose district Vista would be located, was absent).

“I’m really thinking about the students and families in our community,” Councilwoman Arlis Reynolds said ahead of the vote. “I look at this location and cannot find that compatibility for a high school in the middle of an office park with zero outdoor space.”