A private Christian school in California is facing an ongoing legal battle with a local school district over what the school's attorneys say is at least partly due to religious discrimination.
The Ventura Unified School District (VUSD) has served Ventura County Christian School (VCCS) with a notice to vacate its property following a delayed start to the school year in August after the district claimed the property was unsafe.
Attorney Ron Bamieh, one of the lawyers hired to represent VCCS, told The Christian Post via email that VUSD officials informed VCCS on Aug. 19 that its Washington School location — which houses VCCS — was unsafe, just three days before the start of the new school year.
District officials say the decision was made after a seismic evaluation report found that the century-old building “poses significant risk of harm in the event of a natural disaster or earthquake.”
“We cannot and will not compromise the safety of students, families, community members or staff members, whether they are in a building or property owned by the District, or leased by the District to another entity,” the district said in a statement provided to CP.
According to Bamieh, prior to entering into a new lease, VUSD wanted to perform another safety analysis on the Washington School location. Once that analysis was completed, VCCS and VUSD agreed on a two-year lease.
Over the past year, VCCS and VUSD have been negotiating new lease terms.
But when the district sent over the new lease agreement for VCCS’s signature, the school’s officials “saw a sentence in that lease that could be interpreted as preventing VCCS from hiring Christian-only teachers or preventing the teaching of a Christian-based curriculum,” Bamieh said.
Although the school was initially “confused” by that specific sentence in the agreement, VCCS “believed it was a misunderstanding” and requested that the school district remove the sentence from the lease, according to Bamieh.
All the other terms of the lease were agreed upon by VCCS and VUSD, Bamieh said, adding, “VUSD acted like they also believed they had an agreement with VCCS and accepted payment according to the new lease terms.”
Days later, VUSD informed VCCS that the school was unsafe and that they need to vacate the premises.
According to Bamieh, the school district “threatened VCCS that VUSD would lock them out of the building and that if they continued to occupy the building they would be charged with trespassing.”
VUSD Superintendent Antonio Castro told CP last week that while the district’s offer to expedite repairs and upgrades to an alternative district-owned property still stands, "we cannot have them staying in a building that we have been told has significant structural issues and is not safe.”
“It is unfortunate that we have had to get to this point,” said Castro. “The relationship between VUSD and VCCS goes back a long way, and it is one that we value.
“However, the District places the safety and well-being of all students and community members above all else.”
But Bamieh believes VUSD is being disingenuous about its true intentions, one of which includes addressing what he calls a “severe problem with declining enrollment.”
He pointed to one local news report that claimed VUSD has lost more students in the last two years than any other school district in California.
According to data from the California Department of Education, enrollment in publicly funded schools in Ventura County dropped from 135,312 students to 131,481 over the last school year.
“If VCCS closes suddenly after school has started everywhere else, 200 kids will be looking for a school,” Bamieh said. “Most private schools cannot absorb that many students, therefore logically most VCCS students’ only option — besides homeschooling — will be re-enrolling in public schools.”
Another factor could be a plan to use the property where the school now stands to build more low-cost housing in the area, according to Bamieh, who added that “dozens if not hundreds of housing units” could be built on the premises where VCCS currently operates.
But it’s the potentially anti-Christian sentiment behind the move that might be the most troubling, said Bamieh.
“VCCS is also concerned that the motivation may not just be financial for VUSD, and the families and many in their community who share their faith are concerned about the government’s infringement on religious liberty,” he said. “Some of the actions and statements of VUSD and people affiliated with them have raised that concern.”
In a news conference last week, Bamieh told reporters students at VCCS aren’t just learning “reading and writing, but also about Jesus.”
A fundraising effort in support of VCCS had raised more than $17,000 as of Monday as the school likely faces an extended legal battle with the VUSD.
Offering what's described as a “love-based” approach to education, VCCS is pre-K through 12th grade and offers an “interdenominational Christian” curriculum. The school’s stated mission is to “transform and equip students to be leaders and positive examples of the truth of Jesus Christ.”