Months of long, difficult and sometimes bitter meetings came to a head in a marathon Mountain View Whisman school board meeting last week, when board members narrowly decided in a 3-2 straw vote not to open up a new school in the Whisman and Slater neighborhood area.
The decision came after both the district's Boundary Advisory Task Force and the District Facilities Committee recommended against the new school, saying that the district has neither the students nor the bond money to open a school in the northeast quadrant of the city.
Board member Ellen Wheeler said she agrees with the task force's verdict. Wheeler ran for the school board last year saying the northeast quadrant of the city needs a school. While she said she went into the process believing opening a ninth school was the best choice, she acknowledged that necessary conditions haven't been met.
"It's not a question of if, it's a question of when. And I think 'when' is not now," Wheeler said.
The boundary advisory task force boiled it down to the question of whether there are enough kids in the district, now and in the coming years, who can fill up nine schools. "Filling up," in this case, means enrollment of 450 to 600 students. In all of the scenarios that did not include closing or relocating an existing school, the task force found enrollment would sink dangerously low at certain schools, and risk either a closure or severely compromise the academic programs at nearby schools like Monta Loma Elementary.
The relatively simple question came after months of task force members being swamped with information on budgetary constraints, distribution of school-aged kids across the city and dozens of potential attendance boundaries that did everything from move the district's Stevenson PACT choice program to the Landels campus to closing down Theuerkauf Elementary.
Board president Chris Chiang came down on the side of supporting eight schools, but insisted that in the future there were options for creating an alternative school model in the area, including "micro-schools" and "single schoolhouse" models. He said if Whisman eventually gets a school, it shouldn't just be a relocation of the PACT program and should be a 21st century-style "school of the future."
Board member Greg Coladonato said a decision on a Whisman school needs to be made now using the current bond money, or it likely won't happen at all. He contested that enrollment below 450 at schools should not be seen as a risky decision, and that the now-successful Huff Elementary once had enrollment that fell well below the criteria the task force used when it first opened.
"We better do it with this current bond money, because if we don't then we're not going to get that school. There is going to be no 'school of the future,'" Coladonato said.
Board member Steve Nelson, similarly, stood firmly behind opening a new school in the Whisman and Slater neighborhood area, saying it was his duty as an elected official and that it would be an "injustice" to the thousands of residents in the northeast quadrant of the city to continue to deprive them of a walkable school.
Gary Rosen, who had a child at Slater Elementary before it closed, questioned the demographic data used to make the decision. He said parents were told the same things when Slater was being closed down -- that enrollment wasn't there and the district couldn't afford to keep the school afloat -- but enrollment in the district ended up increasing anyway.
The task force recommended relatively conservative changes to the district's boundaries, re-zoning the area in the Whisman neighborhood between Tyrella Avenue and Whisman Road from Huff to Theuerkauf elementary, and re-zoning the small wedge of residents north of Grant Road and south of El Camino Real, moving them from Huff to Bubb. This would bring Huff enrollment down by more than 150 students and alleviate some of the overcrowding at the district's most popular neighborhood school.
Parents in the north Whisman area zoned for Huff, including Tyrella resident Ken Brent, voiced opposition to the change, saying they bought in the area assuming their children would be able to attend Huff. Brent described Huff as a sort of bastion amid other, lower-performing schools that attracts residents to the area.
"The reason people are moving out is because of the lack of quality of the surrounding schools," Brent said.
Other Huff residents in the neighborhood challenged the idea that the decision would favor residents because they wouldn't need to travel across the city to get to school, saying they knew perfectly well when they made the decision to buy that they would need to make the trek across town.
Not a lot of money to go around
The District Facilities Committee, charged with deciding on a spending plan for improving all the district's schools using Measure G bond funds, came to a similar conclusion -- if the board wants to open a new school and stay within budget, it's going to require either closing Theuerkauf Elementary or relocating the PACT program from Stevenson.
Following the board's straw poll vote in March directing the committee to avoid closing or relocating a school, the committee had only one option that stayed within the $143 million budget -- no new school.
Of the $198 million in total bond funds, $55 million has already been committed to upgrading the middle schools, and $43 million has been reserved for turning Castro Elementary into two schools -- one for the neighborhood school and one for the Dual Immersion program. The remaining schools had to share the $100 million left over.
"This was our challenge as a committee. This was a big constraint that led us to make some very hard decisions," said Patrick Neschleba, a member of the committee.
One of the controversial compromises that caught some flak from public speakers at the meeting was a decision by the committee to have the adjacent Theuerkauf and Stevenson campuses share a library and multipurpose room.
Neschleba said rebuilding the entire Stevenson campus with its own multipurpose room and library would either encroach on the Stevenson park space owned by the city or require part of the district office to be torn down, the latter of which would cost $10 million to rebuild.
Leslie McClellan, a second-grade teacher at Theuerkauf, told the board she had serious concerns about having to share facilities with another school. Theuerkauf is about to start a four-year process to improve its academic programs through a "turnaround process," and she said having to do it with the new configuration would be difficult. She suggested the board wait to see how Castro's shared campus works first before making a decision.
Coladonato said he wanted to see what an austere version of the building plans would look like, and if there could possibly be enough money to set aside for a new school at the Whisman or Slater campus. Even a campus entirely composed of portable buildings would be better than nothing, he said.
Doing that would include "draconian" cutbacks to site improvements all over the district, including a reduction in square footage for all the school's multipurpose rooms, according to Todd Lee, the district's construction project manager.
Committee member Thida Cornes said reducing project costs at all the schools to a bare-bones build to fit a new school into the budget would limit the district to making fixes, rather than the big improvements that voters were promised.
"If you cut everything to the bone, it does not enhance learning across the district, which is one of the promises of Measure G," Cornes said.
Nelson said he felt the committee's recommendations were unfair because there were no representatives from the Theuerkauf campus, and that Skelly had stacked the group with people from Stevenson PACT and got an unfair verdict.
"I don't know what Mr. Skelly was thinking about when he put five people from Stevenson on this committee. He should have exercised more restraint," Nelson said.
Skelly disagreed, and said parents are perfectly capable of acting in the interests of all parents and students regardless of where their kids go to school. He said Coladonato, for example, has a child who goes to Stevenson, but he wouldn't doubt he could stay impartial in making district-wide decisions.
"The folks who worked on this committee did a fine job. I don't think they were partial in any way," Skelly said. "I don't agree with this idea that somehow because someone is from one school they can't take a good look at the whole district."