Mountain View's top 10 stories of 2009Like most California communities, Mountain View felt the pain when the nation's and the state's economies fell apart in the economic downturn of 2009. The city's tax receipts plummeted, and school districts were hit hard while the Legislature and governor tussled over ways to reduce a deficit now projected at $21 billion. A drastically reduced budget was not adopted until well into the third quarter, and in the meantime the city and school districts have learned to make do with less.
But while many of the year's biggest stories are budget-related, plenty of others captured headlines in the Voice. Below, in no particular order, we present our picks for the top 10 stories of 2009:
Two big moves for El Camino
After seven years of meticulous planning, El Camino Hospital finally completed construction on its new, seismically safe, $480 million campus in Mountain View.
The new hospital, which sits adjacent to the old one, complies with earthquake safety standards approved in the mid 1990s. It features 399 hospital beds and more state-of-the-art technologies than before, including an improved, $20 million radiology department.
The hospital officially opened on Saturday, Nov. 15, with a well-choreographed patient move and emergency room swap — the old ER closed at 6 a.m. and the new one opened at 6:01 a.m., with its first patient arriving only minutes later.
El Camino purchased the Community Hospital of Los Gatos, signing on to invest a total of $103 million on the facility. The campus was closed temporarily before reopening mid-July. With both campuses, the organization's total bed count is up to 542.
Big year for city planning
Despite slowdowns in the real estate market, 2009 was a big year for land use planning in Mountain View. Hundreds of residents gave input in general plan hearings, where many supported turning Mountain View into a network of "villages" while preserving each neighborhood's unique character was also important for many.
Many welcomed news that a major redevelopment was in the works for 16 acres of San Antonio shopping center that may include 400 homes or a movie theater.
Meanwhile a clash ensued between smart growthers and neighbors over a plan to redevelop Minton's Lumber and Supply into a 214-unit apartment complex near the downtown train station, complete with dueling petitions and a heated neighborhood association election battle.
A report on the city's housing needs earlier in the year said Mountain View is "jobs rich" in regards to its jobs-to-housing ratio. The report also mentioned a state requirement for the city to zone a site for a homeless shelter, a cause that has been taken up by an 86-year-old homeless man, Jess Santana, after 173 homeless people were counted in the Mountain View-Los Altos area in January.
Ad-hoc BMX park bulldozed
The city drew ire from residents in August when a bulldozer was ordered to destroy the ad hoc dirt "Creek Trails" bicycle track known along the Stevens Creek trail at Central Avenue, built over several decades by local youth.
City attorney Michael Martello took responsibility for the decision, and pointed to litigation against the city of San Jose for an accident that happened at a similar BMX-biking area at San Jose's Calabazas Park.
After a city staff report said it would cost $400,000 an acre and $70,000 a year to maintain a legally compliant BMX park in the city, Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga asked the City Council to allow the parks and recreation commission to study the idea. But with member Tom Means absent, the idea died when the council deadlocked 3-3. Abe-Koga said she would bring the idea up again in early 2010, and Means said he would provide the fourth vote necessary to move the idea forward.
High drama over Hangar One
NASA Ames kicked off 2009 with the announcement of ambitious plans to restore Moffett Field's iconic Hangar One, possibly to house a modern airship for the department of defense, which was also tested in an Ames flight simulator this year.
But those plans were derailed when negotiations broke down between NASA and the Navy about how to pay for the hangar's restoration. The White House Office of Management and Budget is helping to arbitrate a decision, which is still in the works. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo said in November that she stands ready to push a bill in Congress for additional funding that might be needed to pay for the restoration of Hangar One. In September, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus promised to wait for the OMB's decision before removing the hangar's toxic siding and leaving the hangar as a skeletal structure.
With siding removal expected as early as April, preservationists are anxiously awaiting a decision from the OMB — and possibly Congress — that will save Hangar One.
Beloved former Mayor Stasek dies
Shock spread through Mountain View with the news of Rosemary Stasek's death on Sept. 24. The former mayor had been working in Afghanistan to improve conditions for women before she experienced several heart attacks due to complications from multiple sclerosis.
Mountain View services for Stasek were attended by 279 people. She was remembered as someone who stuck to her principles at any cost as a city council member, but was very likable and unusually "hip" for a suburban politician.
She founded the nonprofit, "A little help," so she could single-handedly bring aid from the U.S. to hundreds of women in Afghanistan. She lived in Kabul for years despite being called the "foreign whore" on a regular basis. She worked as bartender at the U.S. embassy, supported the famous Kabul beauty school, used a Kalashnikov rifle to collect a debt from a Taliban member and delighted in being the only woman in Kabul to drive a car, smiling and waving at other women.
Stasek's assistant wrote that, "I tell American people, if all of the women are like Rosemary, be proud. She was an example of love, kindness and hard work. We learned a lot from her."
Issues of trust and professional conduct came into question when Maurice Ghysels, superintendent for the Mountain View Whisman School District, revealed in October his relationship with Landels Principal Carmen Mizell. At the time both were married and in the process of divorce.
Ghysels and Mizell both notified the district board in the summer of their relationship. The board said it had no policy regarding the matter, and after consulting a lawyer changed Mizell's supervisor to Assistant Superintendent Mary Lairon to avoid a conflict of interest.
Only two weeks after the relationship came under public scrutiny, Ghysels announced to the board that he would be looking for work outside the district in the coming months. Craig Goldman, district CFO, was designated as the board's choice for superintendent, though no contracts or separation agreements have been drawn up yet.
Teachers eventually criticized the entire episode, saying Ghysels was guilty of a breach in professional conduct. They questioned the board's swift appointment of Goldman without conducting an outside search or taking input from staff and community members.
Accusations fly against teacher
A firestorm of parent complaints ignited another school district personnel issue earlier in the year. Patty Polifrone, a fourth-grade teacher at Huff Elementary, was accused of yelling and ridiculing her students.
At a school board meeting in March, parents asked trustees to fire Polifrone. Though much of the teacher's case was discussed in private — officials noted that personnel matters are confidential — she was replaced as the classroom teacher by Barbara Bernie for the latter part of the school year.
Though Polifrone was ultimately reassigned for the 2009-2010 school year to Graham Middle School, she resigned from the district effective Sept. 1. Officials confirmed her departure, saying she might have been thinking of moving out of the area. Unconfirmed reports said Polifrone had found another teaching position in a South Bay school district.
City begins to take high-speed rail seriously
Though there was some hesitation, the City Council decided in March to have the California High Speed Rail Authority study the possibility of having a major high-speed rail station constructed in Mountain View.
The decision set the stage for a competition with Palo Alto and Redwood City for a mid-peninsula stop on the line planned from San Diego to San Francisco.
In several workshops and hearings, Mountain View residents grappled with the technical reality of adding two additional tracks up the Caltrain corridor for the high-speed trains, and the possible effects that grade-separated crossings would have on Castro Street and Rengstorff Boulevard. As a City Council subcommittee on high-speed rail was created in October, some council members lamented that Mountain View was not being as involved as other cities in discussions about the impact of high-speed rail.
School budgets slashed
As the California state budget deficit reached some $21 billion, local schools felt the repercussions. Last February cuts by the state Legislature translated into a $2 million slash to the Mountain View Los Altos School District's budget. A hefty $1.2 million of that was taken from the Adult School, because most of its funding is provided by the state — the local high schools are funded primarily through property taxes.
The Mountain View Whisman School District saw a cut of $250 per student in the 2009-2010 school year, totaling around $1.1 million. Though the district has healthy reserves, officials are expecting greater cuts next year. The slashes have been complicated by a switch in the district's funding structure from a "revenue limit" district, where funding is based on student enrollment, to "basic aid," where regardless of the number of students, funding is based on property taxes and some (shrinking) supplemental funding from the state.
The Foothill-De Anza Community College district also reported financial hardship in the face of growing demand. Foothill College has cut from its programming and expects to make deeper cuts in the coming year — including layoffs for tenured faculty.
District caught in 'No Child' net
Rising No Child Left Behind standards caught up with local schools this year. Despite standardized test score gains in most subgroups, the Mountain View Whisman District itself and two of its individual school sites — Monta Loma and Theuerkauf elementary schools — entered their first year of Program Improvement (PI) under the federal plan.
In a school or district's first year under PI, parents must be notified and are given the option to transfer their student to another school in the district. The district saw no exodus from either elementary school site, and administrators said they would continue business as usual.
The district saw its Academic Performance Index scores — those given by the state, based on a scale of 200-1,000 — rise in every school but Huff, which is the highest-scoring school in the district with an API of 918. Though English language learners and Hispanic students district-wide saw gains in the subgroups' API scores, they still fell about 200 points below the API score for Caucasian students in the district, suggesting that a significant achievement gap persists.