The Los Altos School District is planning to move forward on a complicated plan to buy land next to the San Antonio Shopping Center, adding a school campus to a fast-growing neighborhood that is hard-pressed for park space.
But amid the long struggle to acquire land at a reasonable cost in a red-hot real estate market, the district's board of trustees has yet to make a firm commitment on whether the site would be home to a neighborhood school, or the long-awaited permanent campus for Bullis Charter School. And left with a vacuum, rumors are spreading that it's going to be the latter.
At a Jan. 8 school board meeting, school board members were expected to discuss Measure N, the $150 million school bond that will fuel land acquisition and construction of a new school. But with two board members absent and one trustee forced to recuse himself, the school board no longer had a quorum, and had to ditch its planned presentation and discussion.
But that didn't stop more than a dozen of residents and parents -- a large number of whom have kids in Bullis Charter School -- from blasting the school board over concerns that the district was planning to plant their school in Mountain View.
Jim Burnham, a parent of a fourth-grade student at Bullis, said it would be a bad idea to put a school that serves families all over Los Altos and Los Altos Hills right next door to one of the largest shopping centers on the Peninsula. Traffic is "horrendous" along San Antonio Road already, he said. Even though the charter school is housed at two campuses in portable classrooms, he said it would actually be a downgrade to migrate to Mountain View.
"It's worse than what we have now," he said.
Los Altos Hills Mayor John Radford, who was one of the signatories for Measure N, sharply criticized the district for failing to provide clarity to district residents. He said voters were convinced that the bond measure was essential in order to accommodate "severe" enrollment growth in the immediate term, even though there was no solid plan on how to use the money.
If the rumors end up being true -- that the district wants to put Bullis in Mountain View -- he said the looming specter of enrollment growth feels like a bait-and-switch in order to house the charter school instead.
"You won't even commit to building a neighborhood school there, and many think the plan is to put Bullis there," he said. "You are obligated to tell us what you are really going to do to solve enrollment growth."
Last month, the district revealed plans to buy the former Safeway and Old Mill office building on the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street, a total of 8.6 acres of valuable real estate next door to the shopping center. Using a complicated deal with developers and the city of Mountain View known as the transfer of development rights (TDRs), the district plans to sell the square-footage of high density development that could have been built on the site to developers to use elsewhere in the city. By doing so, the district expects to recoup over $79 million.
District estimates pin the cost of land in the area at about $15 million per acre, though the cost may be much higher. The Kalcic and Marazzo families who own the parcels said in a statement Tuesday that they have signed a 95-year ground lease with the developer Greystar to build a dense, mixed-use housing development on the site, and have no interest in selling to the school district. At an Oct. 3 Mountain View City Council meeting, one of the lawyers representing the families cautioned that an attempt to take the property through eminent domain would be costly and litigious, saying that there are other more prudent land options out there.
Norm Matteoni, a representative for the property owners, revealed at the board meeting that Greystar had a "preliminary discussion" scheduled with district officials on Wednesday, Jan. 10, to find an alternative that would avoid litigation.
Mountain View City Council members are scheduled to approve the district's plan to sell development rights on Tuesday, Jan. 16, along with a long list of commitments from local developers to buy up the rights to build more than 600,000 square feet of mostly office development throughout the city, particularly in the East Whisman area. During the Oct. 3 meeting, council members largely supported a neighborhood school for the San Antonio site rather than a charter school, but stopped short of making it a condition of approval for the TDRs.
"I think that was the right choice," board president Vladimir Ivanovic told the Voice in a meeting last week. He said that despite the rumors, the board has not weighed in on whether Bullis or a new neighborhood school will be put on the Old Mill site. When the time comes to make the decision, he said it will be done with transparency and plenty of opportunities for the public to weigh in.
That hasn't stopped the public from believing that the new campus would house Bullis. In a letter to the City Council last week, former council member Mike Kasperzak said there is a strong possibility that the Los Altos School District plans to put Bullis Charter School on the property so long as the city doesn't require that it be a neighborhood school. Mayor Lenny Siegel later told the Voice he believes there is a good chance Bullis will be built at the Old Mill site if given the opportunity.
Throughout the Jan. 8 board meeting, parents urged the board to shift gears, move away from the land acquisition plans and take a closer look at whether a new school could be co-located on an existing campus, particularly the large sites at Egan Junior High and Covington Elementary. Bullis parent Stef Lau-Chen said she had serious concerns about the legal battle and high costs that could come with pursuing the Old Mill site, and would much rather see the district consider its existing 116 acres of land.
District parent Mike Carlton, who sat on the district's Facilities Master Plan Committee in 2014, said members looked into options that clearly showed that a permanent site could fit on the Egan and Covington campuses without displacing the existing school, and that it would be much easier than purchasing and tearing down an office park and dealing with tenants leasing the space and years of lawsuits.
Board members have maintained for several years that purchasing land is the preferred solution to manage the growing student population, particularly north of El Camino Real in Mountain View where a vast majority of new housing within the district is located. Although using existing land sounds like a good option on paper, trustees argue that reconfiguring existing schools to fit Bullis would end up costing roughly the same amount and has to potential to cause severe traffic problems.
Ivanovic said Covington and Egan have been thoroughly explored, and while critics may quibble about the true cost of land acquisition versus using existing sites, the costs aren't going to be an order of magnitude different. By buying the Old Mill site, he said the district is going to keep true to its long-term strategy of small, neighborhood schools, averaging only about 50 kids per acre.
"We're not in any hurry to change that model," he said.