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January 09, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, January 09, 2004

Cows on parade Cows on parade (January 09, 2004)

Los Altos Hills parents put up wooden Holsteins to protest loss of school

By Jon Wiener

After Bullis Elementary School closed its doors for the final time last June, Scott Vanderlip responded the only way he knew how: By putting a wooden cow up in his front yard.

The message was clear, at least to anyone who read the accompanying sign: citizens of Los Altos Hills are being "milked" for their tax dollars by the Los Altos School District.

The school district operates six elementary schools and two junior highs for residents of Los Altos, Mountain View and Los Altos Hills. While Mountain View has Springer School within its city limits, for the first time in over 50 years, Los Altos Hills is not host to any of the schools.

"We're a town of 8,000 residents, and we don't have a single public school," said Vanderlip, father of a first grader and a fourth grader at Covington Elementary School where former Bullis students were enrolled.

District officials decided to close a school to account for declining revenues and chose Bullis because it is the smallest of all the district schools.

To protest, Vanderlip and Los Altos Hills resident John Swann have been helping build wooden Holsteins at cow parties since the summer, selling them at cost to residents and placing them at key intersections throughout the wealthy community. More than 35 wooden cows now dot the town's streetscapes as part of the "Cow Art Project," and visitors to can get instructions on how to build their own.

Vanderlip is one of the leading proponents of the Bullis Charter School. The school's application was rejected by the Los Altos School District board last summer but was accepted by the County Board of Education. Other participants in the cow project serve on a committee, which is discussing forming a separate school district for the town.

But what started as a folksy political protest has escalated into a struggle to define public space in Los Altos Hills.

Residents have taken to decorating the cows in festive seasonal garb, evoking memories of "Rudolph," a well-known former apricot tree stump.

Meanwhile, thieves and vandals have stolen or destroyed 15 cows, most recently beheading the so-called Mother Cow at the corner of Burke and Old Altos Roads.

A posted notice from the Santa Clara County Sheriff now stands beside the headless cow, offering a private reward for information regarding the vandalism. The crime was first reported on Dec. 14, but Captain John Hirokawa said the Sheriff's department has received no leads so far.

Vandals tend to be hard to stop because an officer must catch them in the act or get a positive identification from a witness, according to Hirokawa. In this case, nobody knows who is behind the cow-bashings.

For his part, Vanderlip has noticed a pattern indicating a fair amount of premeditation.

"It usually happens to more than one cow in the same night," said Vanderlip. "There appears to be some kind of plan to go out and get a couple of cows."

According to Hirowaka, the vandalisms the Sheriff's office normally deals with in Los Altos Hills involve juveniles throwing eggs, destroying mailboxes or perhaps four-wheeling on private lawns.

But this would not be the first politically-motivated crime in Los Altos Hills. Although it has become rare as of late, Los Altos Hills has seen its fair share of tampering with campaign signs and objects thrown at house windows.

"Things have been pretty cordial. But I think people understand -- the closing of a public school in town, nobody likes to see that. And you're going to have voices on both sides," said Hirokawa.

Vanderlip does not know whether the crimes are intended as a way to silence the protest or what the thieves are doing with the cows once they take them.

"If they really wanted a cow, they could just approach me, or they could carefully unscrew it and take it away. But that is not what's happening. I don't think the objective of these people is to take the cows."

According to Vanderlip, each cow costs about $50 for materials, including wood, paint and mounting. But the thefts have not deterred him. "We can make more cows," he said.

Vanderlip also promised increased cow security, though he declined to reveal what form that would take.

"The cows stay out until we get a public school back," said Vanderlip.

Anyone with information about the vandalism is encouraged to contact Sergeant Bill Tate in the West Valley Patrol Division at (408) 868-6600.

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