A California school district is trying to shut down a private Christian school, citing building safety concerns the school says are baseless.
The Ventura Unified School District (VUSD), just northwest of Los Angeles, is demanding Ventura County Christian School (VCCS) vacate the school’s premises, claiming one of the buildings is structurally unsafe for students.
On August 19, three days before school was supposed to start, the district told the school that the facility was dangerous and that it would not renew the school’s lease for the property.
“We understand the difficult timing of this,” Marieanne Quiroz, a district spokeswoman, told the Ventura County Star. “We did and continue to do our very best to make accommodations for the school.”
“They have put their blood, sweat and tears into the school for 30 years. I understand that devotion and sense of loss,” Sabrena Rodriguez, the district board president, said last weekend. “But as a public agency, the school district has very clear direction for the decisions they have to make.”
The school pushed back, saying the district’s safety claim was unfounded.
“We just do not agree that the classroom is unsafe. We feel that other intentions are at play,” school principal Perry Geue said.
On August 29, the school decided to defy the district and welcomed students back to begin the school year anyway. The district responded with a three-day notice to vacate the premises.
The school has leased the buildings from the district for more than two decades, but the lease expired in June. At the time, the district told VCCS it wanted to do another safety analysis before agreeing to another long-term lease. As recently as September 2021, the district commissioned a safety analysis that found the school was safe for occupancy.
In the meantime, during negotiations for the new lease, VCCS noticed that the district had included a “Non-Discrimination and Equal Opportunity” clause in the new lease that the school was concerned might prevent it from hiring only Christian teachers or teaching a Christian curriculum.
“We could potentially be forced to hire teachers who don’t hold to a Christian worldview,” the principal said.
The school asked the district to delete that paragraph but went ahead and paid two months’ rent, thinking they still had an agreement, according to their lawyer.
Then three days before school was supposed to start, the district informed VCCS that the new June safety report found the school building was unsafe and they would not renew the lease.
However, the safety report did not actually recommend that the school building be vacated. It did recommend closer inspection and installing more supports and bracing.
In response, the school hired another independent firm to conduct a second review of the school building.
“While further study of the building is prudent, nothing on-site or in the recommendations by the [district-commissioned report] warrants vacating the facility at this time,” stated the school-commissioned report.
Ron Bamieh, a lawyer for the school, called the district’s safety claims “baseless” and “completely disingenuous” and said the district might have other motivations.
“VCCS has been at that location for 22 years with no issues or concerns ever being raised about the safety of the school,” Bamieh told The Daily Wire.
“This is subterfuge,” Bamieh said. “VUSD just lacks the courage to be perceived as closing a Christian school because they want to sell that property so the City can build low-cost housing: or because they know those kids will have no reasonable alternative but to re-enroll in public school and they will benefit from the boost of enrollment of 200 kids in their school system.”
Meanwhile, the school is weathering a rent hike from the district, although this was expected, according to Bamieh. The school’s property value has increased dramatically in the last two decades thanks in part to repairs and upgrades VCCS made, worth about $3.5 million according to the principal.
Rent went from $2000 a month for the first 18 years the school rented the buildings to $4000 from 2019 to 2021, and then up to $12,000 a month in the new lease. Initially, the district wanted to charge the school $27,000 per month.
On the discrimination clause, Bamieh said the private Christian school is in the right.
“VCCS is a private school, the law allows them the freedom to practice their religion,” the attorney said. “Any government organization that attempts to inhibit that practice has infringed on that freedom and is illegal.”
At the same time, the attorney said he does not take the school’s opponent lightly.
“Any lawyer who fights a large governmental agency would be a fool not to be concerned about the effect of huge resources, connections, and the power the government brings to the outcome of any legal matter,” he said.
The school is currently raising money for the legal fees associated with its fight to stay open.
Jenn Plew, a mom with two students at VCCS, has been actively fighting for the school and said she feels the district is “searching for reasons to get the school out.”
“I feel that VUSD is being a bully and I want to teach my family and community that we must take a stand against bullies,” she told The Daily Wire.
“Everyone needs to know that we love our children,” she said. “I mean we are paying for their education and have chosen this school for a reason. We would never put them in harm’s way!”
The mom added that her family decided to stick with VCCS despite the legal battle after seeing the school’s “passion and commitment to the students, families, and school.”
“It’s my belief that God has a plan for this school,” she said.