Bullis Charter School board members weighed in with a hearty dose of skepticism Monday night on whether the Los Altos School District's plan to buy land for a new campus in Mountain View is the right path forward.
The charter school's Oct. 1 board meeting marked the first official opportunity for the Bullis board of directors to ask questions and give input on the school district's plans for a 10th school site. Bullis resides within the Los Altos district and relies on it for its facilities.
What school is housed at the relatively small new campus could have huge ramifications for Bullis' future -- particularly if the charter school grows from 900 to 1,200 students.
Despite the high stakes, communication between district officials and the charter school has been fairly limited. And Los Altos School District and Bullis board members have both said that they don't have enough information from the other side to make an informed decision on the 10th site.
Los Altos school board president Vladimir Ivanovic, joined by board member Bryan Johnson, laid out the unusually complex strategy envisioned by the district: Los Altos School District would use eminent domain to buy about 9.6 acres of land at the corner of Showers Drive and California Street and replace the existing businesses with a new school, selling the "unused" density allowed on the property to developers to defray the costs. The Mountain View City Council has agreed to pitch in $23 million in city park fees to further offset the costs -- in return for public access to playing field space -- and the San Antonio area of the city would finally have a school campus to call its own.
As district officials rapidly approach closing on the land deal, Johnson told the board of directors that now is the time for the Bullis community to lay out the charter school's enrollment growth plans and to gauge whether charter school families would be willing to relocate to the San Antonio campus.
None of those questions were definitively answered Monday night, with a majority of the charter school board members instead questioning whether a land purchase was really the right choice. Some board members also raised concerns that moving the charter school to the northernmost tip of the district would cause more problems than it would solve, potentially adding traffic congestion, safety problems and packing a high number of kids on a fairly small site.
"BCS is already well over 900 students now, so looking at a 9-acre site has me very concerned," said Bullis board member Andrea Eyring, a Mountain View resident.
Perhaps the greatest subject of scrutiny was the district's rationale that buying land is necessary to deal with projected enrollment growth in the Mountain View portion of the district, where thousands of apartments in the San Antonio neighborhood are either under construction or in the pipeline. Los Altos School District's enrollment has declined by close to 300 students since 2014 -- and dropped again this year, though it's unclear by how much -- and the relatively small, high-cost apartments being built in Mountain View may not generate a huge number of new students, said Ann Waterman Roy, a Bullis board member and longtime school administrator.
She said taxpayers should feel confident that district officials didn't rush ahead on a land purchase, and vetted the idea of building and using facilities at existing school sites before spending all of the $150 million in Measure N bond money on a new school.
Bullis board member Clara Roa, one of the few trustees who directly tackled the question of whether she supports moving Bullis to Mountain View, said she felt she couldn't make a decision with so much uncertainty. The transaction between the district, the property owner and the city of Mountain View isn't a done deal and, if it does go through, she said the district still has to contend with an environmental review that could unearth all sorts of problems. Even if everything works out, how many kids could even fit on the site?
"It is a very difficult question to answer with so little information," she said.
Roa also asked how, if Bullis moves to the Mountain View site, the district would house the large number of new students projected to live north of El Camino Real in the coming years. The neighborhood is currently split between Covington, Almond and Santa Rita elementary schools, and all three campuses are close to capacity.
"That's something we would have to work out together," Johnson said.
Parents and residents who spoke at the meeting had mixed perspectives, but generally encouraged board members from both the district and the charter school to work together. Covington Parent Jing Wu said she doesn't see how Bullis Charter School's goal of growing to 1,200 students was going to work in the context of a Mountain View school, given the sheer amount of traffic that would be forced into the San Antonio area. But the alternative -- siting the charter school in the small family town of Los Altos with its single-lane streets -- would be even less tenable, she said.
Former Los Altos school board member Tamara Logan said she was surprised to see so much skepticism, if not opposition, to a facilities plan that could finally solve long-standing disputes between the school district and the charter school dating back more than a decade. She said the plan to acquire land, buy park space and fix overcrowding has been the consistent message since she was on the board pushing for Measure N in 2014.
"I'm amazed that there's been so much effort in the community trying to stop a possible solution," she said.
Los Altos Hills Mayor John Radford said there's been an expectation from the start that Measure N was supposed to solve the division and create some type of permanent facilities solution for the charter school, which has been housed in portables at Egan and Blach junior high schools. Instead, four years have gone by with "absolutely no progress," he said, and both parties need to take responsibility for the sluggishness.
Radford said he worried that both sides are moving away from a consensus on how to spend the money, rather than coming together, which doesn't bode well for future planning.
"You're hardening your sides," he said. "More and more you're going apart, not together."
The latest estimates from district officials is that the 10th school site could potentially open in 2022. A child in preschool when Measure N passed would be too old to attend the new elementary school by the time it opens.
Trenna Sutcliffe, Bullis board member and Los Altos resident, said the school district should make absolutely clear to the San Antonio community how the future school site will be used, and that putting Bullis at the 10th site could be perceived as a betrayal.
"I'm actually very concerned that the community north of El Camino may be misled and may be very upset, and rightly so, if they expected a neighborhood school after this site is purchased," Sutcliffe said. "Because if BCS is housed on this site, that's not a neighborhood school. I have a big concern about misleading the community."
After the meeting, Johnson told the Voice that the district appreciates the chance to address the Bullis board, and that it should be a first step in a more collaborative relationship. Bullis board members have been invited to the next school district board meeting, scheduled for Oct. 8, which is the first opportunity the district will have to make concrete decisions on the use of the Mountain View school site.
Though the Bullis board did not take action or give an official direction on the charter school's preferred use of the 10th site, Johnson said the meeting showed signs of progress.
"The meeting last night was a good first step," he said. "As simple as it was, it's something that hadn't happened in recent years."