Sequoia Union High School District sues charter over $4 million loan

Daily Post Staff Writer

An East Palo Alto charter school is slowly winding down its high school program, and because of that, the Sequoia Union High School District filed a lawsuit to get back $4 million it gave the charter.

Aspire Charter Schools, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, runs the East Palo Alto Charter School, which has its kindergarten through fifth-grade classes at 1286 Runnymede St. and its sixth- through eighth-graders, along with a class of 12th-graders, at 1039 Garden St.

Land agreement

Aspire owns the Garden Street property because in 2010 the Sequoia district agreed to give Aspire $4 million to buy property in East Palo Alto for what was called the Phoenix Academy.

Sequoia chartered Aspire, and for that reason was required by state law to provide it with property for the school.

As part of that agreement for the $4 million, Sequoia listed four reasons that Aspire would have to give the money back:

• The site was sold or transferred.

• The site could not be used by a school because of a natural or human-caused disaster.

• Aspire stopped serving students in grades 9-12 in East Palo Alto prior to June 30, 2030.

• Enrollment at the charter school dropped below 80 students.

In a lawsuit filed Monday (April 22) in San Mateo County Superior Court, Sequoia claims that Aspire violated the last two aspects of the agreement and needs to pay them back.

The Post attempted to reach Aspire officials Tuesday and Wednesday (April 23-24) via both phone and email and did not get a response.

Schools merge

In 2014, the school that Sequoia had approved, Phoenix Academy, was merged with Aspire’s K-8 school, East Palo Alto Charter School. As part of the merger, Ravenswood School District had control of the charter’s contract to operate in the city.

Also, Sequoia and Aspire amended their previous agreement to update the terms of when the $4 million would have to be given back. The agreement stayed mostly the same except for the school name.

In June, Aspire filed a petition to continue as a school in East Palo Alto. As part of that petition, it said that it only has 20 high school seniors, and was only seeking to run a K-8 program, eliminating the high school aspect.

The petition was approved by the Ravenswood board in August, which means Aspire will no longer serve Sequoia students, breaking the contract the two had entered into in 2010, the lawsuit argues.

Attorney demands money

According to the lawsuit, on Nov. 15, Sequoia’s attorney told Aspire that the agreement had been broken and the $4 million should be returned.

However, Aspire told Sequoia on Dec. 3 that since Phoenix Academy closed more than four years ago, the statute of limitations was over.

On Dec. 30, Sequoia reminded Aspire of the agreement made before the 2014 merger, which included East Palo Alto Charter School.
Ever since then, Aspire and Sequoia “have been unable to resolve this dispute informally,” the lawsuit says.