Should Clayton Valley High be allowed to convert to a charter school?

A simple yes or no will suffice.

That's what charter organizers have been seeking from the Mt. Diablo school district since submitting their petition in August, and they had reason to think a verdict would arrive at Tuesday's school board meeting.

Trustee Cheryl Hansen, who asked that the issue be placed on the agenda, said, "I think we have the responsibility to look people in the eye and approve it or deny it."

At 11:15 a.m. Friday, responsibility took a holiday.

That's when Superintendent Steven Lawrence, whose staff has inspected the petition until it's frayed and made proponents jump through more hoops than a trained seal, announced that additional time was needed for people with scalpels to fully dissect financial plans.

It was hardly a surprise. The charter people are used to being stiffed.

If you missed earlier episodes of this soap opera, you have a lot of catching up to do.

In September, the school board voted "conditional" approval, with a list of conditions that stretched from Concord to Martinez -- 56, in all. "I think the 56 conditions probably set a state record," said Chase Davenport, regional director for the California Charter School Association.

The demands were so onerous -- ranging from questions about qualifications expected of a human resources manager to everything but the shoe size of the school nurse -- that conditional approval felt like de facto denial, fueling suspicions that something deeper was at play.

Perhaps the real hesitation to sanction the request was not students' welfare but state funding the district would lose if Clayton Valley operated independently.

Lawrence added fuel to the fire with his Oct. 7 "Mt. Diablo USD News Update," an online newsletter distinguished by the debatable slogan "Where Kids Come First."

It began, "Under state law, the board cannot consider the financial impact of a charter on the district when considering whether to approve or deny a charter school," and then went on to detail every negative financial aspect of approval.

Funding for charter students is $941 per year more than for other students, he wrote. Approval would cost the district $1.8 million. The result would be $55 less to spend on each of the students at the district's 55 schools. But, hey, don't let that influence you.

Not long after, Northgate High Principal John McMorris insinuated himself into the story with a memo urging students' parents to oppose the petition because it would siphon funds that otherwise would go to Northgate.

That brought return fire from Clayton Mayor David Shuey, a charter advocate, whose email to the district sprayed sparks as it arrived, demanding the principal be disciplined and the message retracted.

"I thought the superintendent's message was inappropriate," board trustee Hansen said.

"I questioned him on the timing. He delivers this information about fiscal concerns, and it's not something we can even factor into our decision.

"And I questioned the Northgate principal for sending out his information, because what that does is divide communities."

Contentiousness has been the defining hallmark of this ordeal, which Hansen describes as "the epitome of how not to work together." Davenport, who has helped other schools through the process, said transitions often stir ill will, but "I'm not sure that we've ever seen it escalate to this point."

By late Friday afternoon, the matter, which had been expected to come to a head Tuesday, now likely will be heard as an update report from the superintendent.

Shuey, who met with district staff last week, said nearly all of the 56 conditions have been met or revised, such as details on staff hiring plans.

("You can't do that until you are actually approved and have lines of credit and an administration," he said.) Finances are the remaining hurdle -- he hopes.

"Our feeling is that, unfortunately, whatever we do is not going to be good enough," he said.

The one factor that should not be considered -- how the district budget would be affected -- looms as the elephant in the room.

"Even though board members made it clear at their last meeting that they can't consider that in their decision," Shuey said, "both Linda Mayo and Sherry Whitmarsh referenced the impact it's going to have on the rest of the district."

Hansen, who supports the charter movement, said she can't be certain where other trustees stand, but she is sure about this: It's time to find out.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.