Mountain View Whisman school board members made clear at a Monday, Aug. 28, special meeting that they support installing fences at Monta Loma Elementary School, but zeroed in on the option that would enclose the smallest section of the campus.
The board is expected to make a formal decision to fence off part of Monta Loma after three years of divisive debate in the community. A vote is scheduled for a meeting on Thursday, Sept. 7.
District staff presented three options for fencing at an Aug. 17 meeting, but because the item was placed near the end of the agenda, the presentation didn't begin until after 10 p.m. and the board had limited time for discussion.
To give themselves more time to deliberate ahead of the Sept. 7 vote, board members convened a special meeting on Monday dedicated to the fencing discussion.
At that meeting, board members largely expressed support for Option 1, which would enclose the Little League field, but leave largely open the multi-use field that's frequently used by the public. The other two options would enclose more of the multi-use field.
Superintendent Ayindé Rudolph recommended Option 1, which was also generally favored by neighbors, though some said they would prefer that no fencing be added. School staff, on the other hand, have generally supported a different option that would fence off most of the multi-use field.
Under any of the options, the community would be allowed to use the unfenced areas, even during school hours. The fenced-off spaces would be available to the public when the school isn't operating.
The debate over open space at Monta Loma dates back to 2020, when the school district tried to move ahead with plans to put up fences around all its campuses, citing security concerns. While there was pushback from residents in various areas of the city, those living near Monta Loma came out in particularly strong opposition. The fields at Monta Loma Elementary School represent some of the only park space in the neighborhood and are heavily used by the community.
The district ultimately moved ahead with erecting barriers at all its other campuses, but held off at Monta Loma. The school board hired a consultant, Carducci Associates, which held a series of community meetings to get feedback on the topic and ultimately designed the three options that the board is now reviewing.
Community members weigh in
Nine people of the public spoke at Monday's meeting. Those living near the school generally favored either no fences or Option 1, which would fence off the least area.
Brielle O'Connor, a former Monta Loma student, said that she never once felt unsafe on campus and that some of her best childhood memories took place on the open field.
"If you fence this field, you will take away so much more than you will give," she said.
Kerri Fox, a longtime teacher at Monta Loma, on the other hand, argued in favor of fencing, noting that it would help prevent younger students and those with disabilities from running off campus. She also said that without fencing, staff have to take time away from educating students to respond to incidents on campus.
"Our lack of perimeter controls leaves our students and staff helpless to protect our students in case of a real threat," Fox said.
Board signals support for fencing
At Monday's meeting, the school board members were united in their support for installing fencing at Monta Loma.
"It's clear, at least to me, that we need a physical barrier to demarcate space that belongs to kids during school hours," board President Laura Ramirez Berman said.
While the board supported a fence around the school, they also were relatively uniform in favoring the option that would leave the most space available for residents.
The one exception was trustee Devon Conley, who said that she was "really conflicted" about choosing Option 1, because it would give less open space to kids during the school day. Conley said that her preference would be Option 2 or Option 3, which fence off more of the field during school hours, but that she also had concerns about what those fencing plans would mean for the character of the park. In the end, she described herself as torn on which path to choose.
Conley said that, despite fencing, other schools are heavily used by the community on the evenings and weekends.
One issue the trustees grappled with was whether teachers and students would make use of the unfenced areas during the school day. Rudolph and consultant Vince Carducci told the board that school staff have indicated they would only want to use the parts of campus within the fence.
Trustee Chris Chiang said that he understands teachers' concerns about interacting with the public, but that he believes that it is important for them to engage with the community. Chiang stressed that while he supported Option 1, he felt it was necessary to make clear that teachers will still have priority access to unfenced areas during the school day. He suggested adding signage to that effect.
"If what the teachers say right now is that 'we'll only see what's on our side of the fence as Monta Loma,' that's a tragedy," Chiang said. "We have to do whatever we can to design against it."
Board member Bill Lambert supported adding fencing as a way of designating the campus as a place of learning and creating a sense of privacy for students and staff. However, he pushed back on the idea that safety is an issue on campus and noted that existing gates are left open throughout the school day.
Lambert particularly objected to "access logs" that the school has been keeping. For the past several years, school staff members have maintained records of interactions with the public.
According to Lambert, these logs created heightened fear between the school and community and were presented to the community as evidence of why they weren't deserving of their park space.
"This is demeaning and insulting to the residents of Monta Loma," Lambert said. "It just has required an enormous amount of time that has taken away from (students') education. None of this is necessary."
The vast majority of the entry logs are benign, with descriptions like "community member using swings" or "an adult and child walked into campus." However, other incidents have been flagged by the school as concerning, including a man using the boys' restroom and a case in which police were called when an "aggressive" man didn't follow instructions to leave campus.
Some board members pointed to the access logs as evidence of the issues that teachers and students describe facing. Berman said that even in cases where there isn't a verbal or physical interaction, children and staff get nervous and distracted because of the potential for people or unleashed dogs to encroach on their space.
"The cumulative effect of these interactions and the lack of a physical barrier is that we have students and adults that serve them who don't feel safe at school – and so we must act," Berman said.
Considering further changes to campus access
The board also toyed with the idea of making other changes to fencing and access at the school, beyond those laid out in the three options that the consultant prepared.
Lambert raised the possibility of closing off the rear entrance to the campus from Anna and Elka avenues during the school day, arguing that it's too close to a children's play area. By removing that entrance while school is in session, Lambert said that the fencing around the campus could be simplified.
Board members considered the proposal, but ultimately decided against closing off the entrance. Laura Blakely said that while she appreciated the sentiment behind Lambert's suggestion, she felt it was a fundamental change to campus access that she opposed making at this point in the process. Other board members had similar concerns.
"I like the idea, but I think it's going to complicate things," Berman said. "I think that we just want to make this clean."