The headlines throughout 2019 painted a curious picture for Mountain View's local schools. One district weighed whether to house homeless students in a makeshift RV park in one of its middle school parking lots, while another eventually succeeded in buying a large chunk of a commercial shopping center and now owns a gym and a department store.
District officials talked of building compact, tall urban schools in a previously suburban city; delving into the world of workforce housing for staff members struggling to make ends meet; and even found themselves negotiating directly with one of the most powerful companies in the world over the future of school funding in a rapidly growing city.
Taken altogether, schools in Mountain View found themselves forced into public policy debates and grappling with regional problems that extend far beyond the classroom. The uncharted waters meant school board trustees and top staff had to bridge communication gaps and learn to work with unusual allies. Some of those relationships remain tenuous and problematic heading into 2020.
But 2019 also proved to be a year of resolution. The promise of teacher housing is now closer to reality than before, a new school was opened and a comprehensive redesign of public school attendance boundaries changed the educational landscape of the city. Mountain View also saw the swift rise and fall of an effort to launch a new charter school, Bullis Mountain View, which built momentum late last year only to fall apart in the spring.
For the past five years, Mountain View's city politics have been dominated by the topic of housing affordability, with the prevailing view that more housing -- from small apartments to rowhouses -- and suppression of office growth could prevent skyrocketing rents and displacement of low- and middle-income families.
As a result, the city has 6,638 housing units that are either under construction or in the pipeline as of November, and large swaths of the city have been rezoned to allow up to 15,000 homes on top of that. It was only recently that school officials -- from both the Mountain View Whisman and Mountain View-Los Altos High school districts -- crunched the numbers and rang alarm bells, saying that they had neither the money nor the land to accommodate thousands of additional students.
Time and again throughout 2019, the City Council grappled with how to address the problem. Demanding concessions from developers can only go so far, as school fees for new facilities could sink the financial feasibility of the housing council members so desperately sought. The existing policy on the books, which is to have school districts and developers work out an agreement on their own as a condition of project approval, hasn't worked either.
The challenge came to a head in November, when Mountain View Whisman Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph candidly told the council that locking school officials in a room with Google and other developers to come up with a funding agreement has been an "unhealthy approach," and that negotiations with the tech giant have been mired by posturing and a lack of clarity on what constitutes a fair deal.
The Mountain View Whisman school board, for its part, has raised concerns that the offers by Google up until now have been less than ideal. Two properties proposed for school sites include a small 2.5-acre parcel that will likely be neighbors with 15-story buildings towering overhead. But even that was perceived as an improvement: The first proposed school site was located on the fringes of North Bayshore next to the baylands on top of "artificial fill," raising serious concerns about earthquake safety.
The bright spot is that more classroom space just opened up at a new school. In August, the school district opened the long-awaited Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School on North Whisman Road, which had been in the works for four years after a lengthy campaign to reopen a school in the neighborhood. Vargas ran into some hiccups early on -- it couldn't connect to the electrical grid due to an easement dispute and had to run on a generator for months -- but it stands to be a valuable community asset near areas expecting huge population growth from new housing development.
Rise and fall of Bullis Mountain View
From the outset of 2019, the idea that Mountain View would be home to a new charter school felt like a given. A new effort acting as an extension of Bullis Charter School, dubbed Bullis Mountain View (BMV), sent off a charter petition to the Mountain View Whisman School District that was impossible to stop.
State laws -- which have been modestly revised since then -- made clear that BMV had a right to open a charter school if it met all the statutory requirements, which it did, and couldn't be impeded or blocked on the basis of public protest alone. The charter was approved last December, but only with extraordinary reluctance and a sense of frustration on the part of Mountain View Whisman trustees and school staff.
In a fiery speech at the meeting, Rudolph condemned BMV for ramming through the approval process without community buy-in, and argued it would lead to teacher layoffs and a loss of instructional programs.
The critical decision that would determine the fate of the charter school was not fiery rhetoric, however, but a decision by the board of trustees to approve the charter with a series of conditions. The approval vote mandated that BMV have an enrollment preference for low-income kids; use the same student assessments as the district; and exceed the district's test scores "for all pupil subgroups by not less than 5%."
BMV officials argued that the demands were untenable at best and illegal at worst, and communication between the charter school and the school district went from consistent correspondence to infrequent legal letters. The school district, citing a lack of progress in meeting the board's conditions of approval, started laying the groundwork in April to revoke the charter. BMV representatives, for their part, said the conditional approval was tantamount to a denial of the charter school, and that it would not participate in an "ill-conceived 'revocation' exercise."
The effort was officially snuffed out on June 13, when the board voted 4-0 to revoke the charter.
Major milestones in teacher housing
Though the intensity of the housing crisis is most apparent when it displaces low-income families or boosts the number of homeless residents living on the streets, city and school district officials alike have warned that there's a quiet contingent of middle-income families who are barely getting by.
Teachers, in particular, have garnered public attention as employees who serve the vital purpose of educating the next generation, yet cannot afford to live remotely close to where they work. Many are described as the "missing middle," residents who make too much to qualify for subsidized housing but too little to make ends meet. Many teachers report that they are prepared to migrate out of the Bay Area or quit the profession entirely, and cost of living is a primary factor.
But 2019 marked the beginning of two significant efforts to put a dent in the problem. Mountain View Whisman made headlines throughout the Bay Area for a landmark deal in which it would lease and operate 144 units of below-market-rate housing for teachers and staff. The deal involves a three-way partnership with the district, the city of Mountain View and the developer FortBay, where the district would pitch in $56 million in exchange for control over a portion of the project's 716-apartment complex at 777 W. Middlefield Road.
The origins of the district's ambitious housing plans can be traced back to 2017, when the district considered where it could place a teacher housing facility without going broke. A consultant report showed that the best option would be to place three-story townhouses on district-owned land at Cooper Park.
The idea was extremely unpopular with Waverly Park neighborhood residents living in the area, and green "Save Cooper Park" signs became a permanent fixture in front yards throughout the area. District officials and school board members backed off the idea of developing the land, working with the city to find alternatives. As a condition of the 144-unit teacher housing project on Middlefield, the district signed an agreement to the city guaranteeing Cooper Park would not be developed for purposes unrelated to education.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian spent 2019 forging an agreement between local school districts to create teacher housing in Palo Alto, which can be used by teachers in the Mountain View Whisman, Los Altos and Mountain View-Los Altos High school districts. The proposed project, which will be located on county-owned land next to the North County courthouse, will have between 90 and 120 units that will be exclusively available to teachers and school staff.
LASD decision hangs in the balance
The Los Altos School District wrapped up a year and a half of complex real estate negotiations when it purchased 11.7 acres of land for a new school site for $155 million this month.
The land, located in the San Antonio shopping center, is currently home to several commercial tenants including JoAnn fabrics, Kohl's, and a 24 Hour Fitness. Along with the eye-popping price tag, the district is now the landlord of these businesses and will collect about $2.5 million each year in rent before giving tenants the boot to prepare for construction.
Despite finalizing the deal, district officials concede that the hard work is still ahead of them in 2020. The school board has yet to decide what kind of school to put on the future Mountain View campus, and past proposals have been met with severe blowback from the community. A proposal by the board in April to relocate Egan Junior High School to the yet-to-be-built school at the corner of Showers Drive and California Street prompted swift backlash from the community, leading board members to table the idea.
The decision will have a profound implications on the relationship between the district and Bullis Charter School. The charter school's leadership has long fought for a single, consolidated campus in a centrally located spot in the district, but has long opposed being moved to the Mountain View site. The charter school's board of directors swiftly endorsed the plan to move Egan to the San Antonio shopping center site, which would grant the charter school nearly exclusive use of the current Egan school facilities.
During the fall, the district hosted an aggressive public outreach campaign to solicit feedback on what to do with the new school site, including workshops that attracted hundreds. The goal, according to trustees leading the effort, was to put all options on the table and provide the community with as much information as possible to make an informed vote. At one of the workshops, 62% of those polled said they opposed the idea of moving Egan to Mountain View.
The plan is for the district's consultant, MIG, to pull together a report on all the community feedback and present it to the school board on Jan. 27. The hope is that the board can narrow the list of options and agree on what to do with the newly bought real estate by the end of the 2019-20 school year.