In a sign of further fraying relations between the city of Mountain View and the Mountain View Whisman School District, the city is considering terminating a more than six-decade agreement with the school district for the joint operation of campus fields.
City staff is recommending that the City Council end the agreement in a proposal to be considered by the council on Tuesday, Sept. 12.
Under the existing Joint Use Agreement, the city pays for maintenance and improvements to the fields at Mountain View's public elementary and middle schools. In return, the school district agrees to let the public use its open space in a way that doesn't interfere with school operations. In practice, this has meant that campuses are open after school hours. The city has also managed renting fields for sports games and other community uses during these times.
Superintendent Ayindé Rudolph told the Voice that he was "taken aback" at the city staff recommendation, but that even if the council opts to pull out of the agreement, the district plans to allow the public use its campuses when classes aren't in session.
The first Joint Use Agreement dates back to 1959, according to a city staff report. The most recent extension was signed in 2000 and runs through June 30, 2025, but only includes some of the district's schools. That's because when the agreement was reached more than two decades ago, the Mountain View and Whisman school districts hadn't yet merged.
The city and school district have been operating as though all the campuses were included in the current deal, but have been in negotiations since 2019 to try to reach a new agreement that formally encompasses the entire district. Those negotiations got interrupted by the pandemic, but the city and district began meeting regularly again in 2022, according to the city staff report.
Over the past several years, the use of school fields has featured prominently in multiple public debates, including over the district's decision to install fences around school campuses. Rudolph has also suggested that, without additional funding, housing growth could lead the district to install portable classrooms on the fields at certain school sites to accommodate new students.
The school district announced earlier this year that it was pausing the Joint Use Agreement negotiations and in recent months, tensions have remained high between the city and school district on multiple fronts.
According to Rudolph, after the district paused negotiations, City Manager Kimbra McCarthy canceled a recurring meeting that the two had and said she would only meet when necessary. The pair haven't met since March and have instead corresponded via email, Rudolph said.
McCarthy told the Voice that other city and district staff meet frequently, but that her meetings with Rudolph had become unproductive and that the relationship between the city and Rudolph has been "damaged."
The disagreements between the city and school district aren't limited to school fields. The two parties, plus the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, have been in separate negotiations over how property tax revenue from the Shoreline area is shared. A short-term agreement was reached in May, but a long-term deal is still in negotiations. An outside mediator is set to meet with the three agencies next week.
School fencing has also sprung back into the public eye. Mountain View Whisman moved ahead with installing fencing at its campuses several years ago, but held off at Monta Loma Elementary School because of resident pushback. Last month, the school board brought back the issue and reviewed three fencing options prepared by a consultant. The board ultimately selected one of those options and approved it last week.
Hours before the meeting in which the final vote on Monta Loma fencing was slated to take place, City Manager Kimbra McCarthy emailed Rudolph to inform him that the Council would be considering terminating the Joint Use Agreement for school fields at its Sept. 12 meeting. City staff still support retaining certain agreements, including for the sports centers at the middle schools.
According to Rudolph, he didn't know the city was considering ending the Joint Use Agreement until he received the email "out of the blue" on Thursday afternoon. At the same time, Rudolph said that he shouldn't be surprised by anything, given the events of the past several years.
"Unfortunately we've hit a point where the easiest thing to do is to walk away, versus to have honest discourse about where we are and how we can find a solution," Rudolph said.
Assistant City Manager Audrey Seymour Ramberg declined to speak ahead of the council meeting, but McCarthy and City Spokesperson Lenka Wright responded to questions via email.
According to Wright, a lot of progress was made after negotiations restarted in 2022, and the city believed the talks were nearing completion when the district decided to pause them earlier this year. The district subsequently removed city signs on school fields and proposed fencing options at Monta Loma without consulting the city, Wright said.
"This signaled to the city that the school district had an interest in acting independently, not in partnership, regarding its lands," Wright wrote. "These communications and actions led to City staff’s recommendation to discontinue the JUA."
City staff recommends termination
City staff's report to the Council similarly brings up the fencing decision and signage change as examples of the district operating on its own. The city also points to a May 3 letter from Rudolph to the city's Parks and Recreation Commission as one reason for the city's recommendation to end the Joint Use Agreement.
In that letter, Rudolph writes that the district doesn't intend to limit public access outside of school hours and that the district is interested in helping the city be able to count school fields as park space, but also raises the prospect of putting classrooms on school fields to accommodate future growth and raises potential legal issues with the current Joint Use Agreement.
Rudolph proposes three solutions at the end of the letter, which include having the district take over field maintenance and rentals. The city staff report to the Council states that the city "accepts the proposal," which it states would involve ending the joint use agreement.
Rudolph, in contrast, told the Voice that his letter also gave the option of the city directly renting the fields from the school district. However, Wright told the Voice that the city isn't interested in that option.
According to Rudolph, the Joint Use Agreement negotiations got hung up on two legal issues: the Civic Center Act and questions over indemnification. The district believes that the city's field rental process doesn't comply with the Civic Center Act and wants the city to provide broader protection from liability for events happening outside school hours.
The city disputes the claim that it's violating the Civic Center Act and thought an agreement had been reached on indemnification before the district paused the negotiations, according to Wright.
Asked why the district paused the talks, Rudolph said it was because no solution was found to the legal problems and district staff had limited bandwidth while facing other pressing issues, including student mental health and test scores.
School field maintenance going forward
The city currently spends roughly $1.5 million on staff and utility costs to maintain school fields, plus roughly $450,000 each year for capital improvements, according to the staff report. The city collects about $120,000 in rental revenue, the report states.
In his May letter to the city, Rudolph said that the district could maintain its fields at a lower cost of approximately $500,000 annually and that this could be cost neutral based on rental income.
If the City Council does decide to end the agreement, Rudolph said that the district would look into transitioning the field rental process over to its systems.