Mountain View City Council members agreed early Wednesday morning on a plan to help the Los Altos School District build a campus for San Antonio neighborhood residents, bringing what residents describe as badly needed park space and a public school to the area around the shopping center.
On a 6-0 vote shortly before 2 a.m. on Dec. 12, council members agreed to commit $23 million in city funding to assist in the school district's land acquisition plans for a future school site in Mountain View, along with a joint-use agreement to operate open space and recreational facilities on the corner of California Street and Showers Drive. Council member John McAlister, who has a financial stake in a private preschool on property leased from LASD, recused himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
The district has sought for years to buy land in the area for a new school, and in recent months has negotiated with property owner Federal Realty to acquire 11.6 acres on the corner of the San Antonio shopping center. The cost remains unknown, as school district officials continue to negotiate price and terms of payment.
The Los Altos School District extends into Mountain View's city boundaries, encompassing residential neighborhoods in and around San Antonio, and those residents account for roughly one-fourth of all students enrolled in the district.
The city of Mountain View is playing a huge role in the district's acquisition plans. Along with the $23 million in park fees, the city is permitting the school district to build a school and "sell" developers the unused building density allowed on the site. District officials plan to sell 610,000 square feet of density rights to developers across the city for a total of $79.3 million.
Given that the San Antonio area has no nearby school -- families are split between three schools to the south in Los Altos -- City Council members agreed that they wanted the new school to serve Mountain View families. But council members grappled with the question of whether that should be a condition of approval, with narrowly split votes in the past favoring flexibility for the school district.
While the district's board of trustees sent the city an ambiguous letter ahead of the meeting stating the future school would "serve" the neighborhood -- something council member Lisa Matichak called "underwhelming" and not a clear decision -- Los Altos school board president Jessica Speiser affirmed that local children would be able to attend whatever school is built there.
"We agree with the Mountain View City Council and want to commit to an elementary or junior high school open to neighborhood students, or a choice or charter school with a preference for neighborhood students on the new site," Speiser said at the meeting.
The last of those options, a preference for Mountain View kids at Bullis Charter School, would be difficult to guarantee. Bullis Charter School officials did not speak at the meeting and have never discussed the possibility of an enrollment preference for the region north of El Camino Real, and the district isn't involved in the renewal of Bullis' charter where enrollment policies are laid out. Speiser said that, in her eyes, Bullis being at the San Antonio school site would be precluded if it didn't come with an enrollment preference.
Bullis Charter School board president Joe Hurd told the Voice that the board has expressed zero interest in adding a neighborhood preference, and has sought an even-handed approach to serving students throughout the Los Altos School District. The statements made by the district and Speiser early Wednesday morning amount to the district owning the new school site as a district-run school, he said, because the district has no hand in the charter school's enrollment policies.
"The Los Altos School District is planning to operate a school for neighborhood residents in the 10th (school) site," Hurd said.
Some residents remained skeptical, despite the promises made by district officials. Parent and Mountain View resident Jan Baer criticized the district for its use of vague language. She pointed out that most of the district's low-income families and English learner students reside in the area north of El Camino.
"By using language such as 'neighborhood-serving schools' instead of commuting to a neighborhood school, LASD still refuses to equally serve the growing Mountain View population," she said. "LASD is still trying to maintain (its) status quo while neglecting the rights of minorities."
In a series of last-minute changes, City Council members sought to strike a careful balance between making requests of the school district -- formally in a memorandum of understanding, or MOU -- while giving the public agency the latitude to make its own decisions for the site. The MOU language says students in the area north of El Camino Real will be able to attend the school, but stops short of dictating a specific set of boundaries. Rather than demand a specific enrollment cap at the school to keep it in line with other campuses south of the city border, council members opted for softer language stating that enrollment at the school should be "substantially similar" to the rest of the district's schools.
A junior high school at the site would likely serve around 600 students, while a middle school would serve 900. Superintendent Jeff Baier said the district's "target" for its largest elementary schools is to not exceed 550 to 600 students.
While Councilman Chris Clark said he wanted the "neighborhood" aspect of the school to be binding, he was uneasy with forcing the school district to keep enrollment low. He said his one criticism of the school district is that the existing campuses are under-utilized and serve too few students, and that the debate over "density and fairness" shouldn't play out in the MOU.
"Us capping (student) density at San Antonio would send the wrong message," he said.
The plan is for the school district to retain 9.6 acres for its school site and adjacent open space, a track and a gym, while the remaining 2 acres would be transferred to the city of Mountain View at the cost of $10 million per acre. These costs would then be offset by the developer Greystar as mitigation for its housing development at the Old Mill and former Safeway site across the street, according to a city staff report. These 2 acres would serve as a city park separate from the joint-use agreement.
If all goes according to plan, the district will acquire the property through condemnation and relocate the existing businesses on the property by September 2020, and will begin construction on a school later that year. The school would open its doors to students in fall of 2023 at the earliest.