The final day of July will mark the 1,000th day since the Los Altos School District's $150 million Measure N bond squeaked by at the ballot box, granting the district the opportunity to build a new school, alleviate crowding and sort out a decade-long dispute with Bullis Charter School over permanent facilities.
But as the 2016-17 school year drew to a close, information on what progress was being made to meet these goals slowed to a trickle. School board members and district staff said they are working hard to acquire new land for a tenth school site, but since November, the board has not met in closed session to discuss negotiating a deal on a property. Board updates on Measure N rarely go farther than assuring the public that the real estate search is still underway and that "all options" are being considered.
A number of circumstances can be blamed for the slow progress, but a tough real estate market is chief among them. School board members have made it clear that a site north of El Camino Real in the San Antonio Shopping Center area would be an ideal location for a new school because of the high enrollment growth projected for the area. But land that's available for sale in that area -- the district declined a past deal for a long-term lease -- is hard to come by and would cost between $10 million and $15 million an acre, according to district estimates.
But when it comes to school construction, time is money. Other local school districts estimate that costs escalate by 8 to 10 percent each year because of the hot construction market in the Bay Area, meaning the delay in Measure N spending has already diminished the purchasing power of the bond money.
The clock is also ticking on the district's five-year facilities agreement with Bullis Charter School, an important deal brokered between the two parties to avoid facilities disputes and end a litigious, adversarial relationship that goes back more than 10 years. The agreement allows Bullis to grow to 900 students by the 2018-19 school year, and includes language that both parties would work in good faith to figure out a "longer-term solution" on the charter school's facilities. Bullis is now housed in portables on two district campuses.
Last month, a group of current and former Los Altos city officials as well as Bullis Charter School Board Chair John Phelps penned a guest opinion in the Voice calling for a change of pace. Instead of focusing on a land purchase, the writers suggested that the district also carefully consider whether a tenth school could be located on an existing campus, sharing the property with another school. Exploring both options, they wrote, is the "only responsible thing to do" and would ensure a prudent use of taxpayer funds.
"Instead of spending critical dollars on the purchase of a large new site, we can provide major community benefits at much lower cost by augmenting an existing site through strategic land swaps, modest purchases of adjacent land, or easements," they wrote.
Several of the column's co-signers, including Phelps, Los Altos Hills City Councilman John Radford, former Los Altos School District board member Ginny Lear and former Los Altos mayors Lou Becker and Jane Reed, have since created a website directly advocating for use of the district's existing land for its tenth school site. The group, called Creative Facilities Solutions, states that it is devoted to exploring ways to make "better use of the 116 acres that LASD already owns," and shows conceptual site maps for how Bullis Charter School could fit alongside Egan Junior High School and Covington Elementary.
Soon after the guest opinion was published, several district parents who play key roles on district advisory committees, as well as Mountain View City Councilman Lenny Siegel, wrote their own guest opinion for the Voice, arguing against jumping on a quick and easy answer to the facilities problem. The district's enrollment task force and the Facilities Master Plan Committee came to the same conclusion -- that the district needs to acquire land for a new school to keep up with projected enrollment growth -- and that the community needs to have "trust and patience" in the search process.
Los Altos Hills resident John Swan, who serves on the Citizens Oversight Committee for the Measure N bond, told board members at their June 5 meeting that there is no real spending plan for Measure N, and that he's been disappointed with the situation. He suggested that the district's pursuit of land in Mountain View is misguided, and that it could purchase a larger site in Los Altos and Los Altos Hills for a fraction of the price.
"I think looking at properties north of 15 million (dollars) an acre is not meeting your fiduciary responsibility as a board," Swan said.
Progress behind closed doors
Although it appears, from the public's perspective, that little progress has been made in the real estate search, district officials say that isn't the case. Board president Sangeeth Peruri told the Voice on Friday that the search is still in full swing, and that the district is working closely with the city of Mountain View to find a suitable location for a school north of El Camino.
Peruri himself is excluded from any of the relevant committees and site searches because he owns land in the San Antonio region, so he said he knows as much as anyone else. To him, though, no news is good news, and the recent dearth of information coming from the district means things are "progressing" in the right direction, he said.
Once the board decides whether to buy land or use an existing site, several other major decisions can follow, including whether the new school will house Bullis Charter School or a district-run school, and whether the district should switch to a middle school model and move sixth grade to Egan and Blach intermediate schools.
A comprehensive plan to improve existing school sites using Measure N money has also been put on hold pending a final decision on buying land.
Peruri said he has some reservations about using the district's existing acreage for a new school. The site work and new facilities required for a two-school campus can be expensive, and even exceed the cost of buying land, he said.
Also, traffic could get much worse during pick-up and drop-off times because so many students would be housed in the same location. Bullis Charter School's enrollment combined with that of a school like Covington would exceed 1,300 students, based on 2016-17 enrollment.
While Peruri said he understands the sense of urgency from the community and the frustration with the slow process, he said real estate transactions take time -- particularly when you're working with government agencies with a lot of constituents -- and that the board has an obligation to avoid rushing prematurely to a decision.
"There (are) a lot of families that have uncertainty; it's valid and it's certainly appropriate for them to push the district and to want a resolution quickly," he said. "But from a fiduciary perspective and a community perspective, we need to optimize not only for families today but for families 20 or 30 years from now."