Still no solid plan for school bond money

Exhaustive real estate search leaves future school prospects uncertain

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."

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6 people like this
Posted by Secret Planning
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2017 at 1:54 pm

Good points in the article. One missing factoid is that there is an incentive to the district to find a new site, because they are eligible for 50% matching by state bond money if they build such a new school. The state rules are being delayed because there is a concern that wealthy districts like this get too much of the state money in these situations though. There is no logic at all in delaying the decision about whether this will be a new neighborhood school or a district-wide charter school though. That is a decision that should impact how this site is received in Mountain View. Sure any city park next to it will help the area either way. The district wide school brings in a lot of traffic and drop-off issues though, whereas a neighborhood school would have much more walking to school and drop offs from people who already live in the area. The area is so small, just 1/4 of a square mile. it seems really overdue for it to have a neighborhood school, especially since LASD provides no bus service for all those kids traveling into Los Altos every morning.

14 people like this
Posted by Voice of Reason
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2017 at 2:03 pm

From the article: "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."

Seriously? Is this a joke??

25 people like this
Posted by Voice of Reason
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2017 at 2:07 pm

The "enrollment growth" projections sold to measure N voters have failed to materialize. As such, the prudent course of action is to:

1) Close Covington and move BCS to that campus
2) Move 6th grade to Egan/Blach middle schools
3) Spend Measure N bond funds to upgrade existing schools

No 10th campus necessary.

13 people like this
Posted by James Thurber
a resident of Shoreline West
on Jul 19, 2017 at 3:02 pm

Not having a very positive opinion of the Los Altos District's administration I have to be careful how I phrase this but when the voters give the district One Hundred and Fifty Million Dollars ($150,000,000) in order to build a new school and nothing happens for three years one has to question the overall competency of the system.

The Committee of Thirty (30) was probably a mistake. The Board and the superintendent should have simply come to a decision based on projected student enrollment. Historically committees are rarely successful.

Either the District needs a school or it does not. Putting a campus on El Camino, as was proposed last year, was a non-workable proposal. The cost of property in the region makes almost any proposal ridiculously expensive.

To make things worse Bullis Charter, despite being an excellent school in all regards, governs solely by threat of legal action.

I believe the bond measure has been overcome by events and should simply be dismissed / not used.

6 people like this
Posted by Alternative Slant
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2017 at 3:41 pm

Perhaps LASD are brilliant. By delaying this long they qualify for state matching funds. They spend $160 Million on a school site in their target area and get the city to provide land alongside it for a park/outdoor space. This only uses $80 Million of the bond money. Then they take the remaining $70 million of bond money and get state matching funds to round that out to $100 Million. They use the $100 Million to build a new school alongside Covington for BCS and also upgrade and modernize Covington's former Jr High School buildings to make better use of the land for that school. They abandon this crazy logic that the ex-Jr High school site can't handle the student load because of TRAFFIC!

Actually, they don't even need to keep Covington operational initially, if they put 600 kids in the San Antonio area, because that renders Covington down at around 300 kids which is too small, especially when Almond and Santa Rita are a similar size. So they have time to redevelop the Covington site to allow for the potentially increased enrollment that MIGHT come in 6 or so years. But they own 16 acres of land worth $150 Million at the Covington site, which is not much cheaper than the land in the San Antonio area.

11 people like this
Posted by Sam I am
a resident of The Crossings
on Jul 19, 2017 at 8:50 pm

Best summary of what has not happened in recent months. Thanks MV Voice. Look forward to your 1,500th day update.

9 people like this
Posted by swissik
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2017 at 10:14 pm

As a long time resident and taxpayer in Los Altos I agree 100% with the above comment "to dismiss i.e. NOT use the bond measure. The LASD isn't as smart as speculated upon by Alternative Slant, in fact it is incompetent and has been such for some considerable time. My family refuses to vote for any bond measure because we believe that the more money these so called public servants have at their disposal the more they spend on frivolous issues. There is no better smell than the smell of federal funding even though there is no plan and no accountability. The voters are equally as incompetent as in this case the LASD.

6 people like this
Posted by Amy Gaw - MV
a resident of St. Francis Acres
on Jul 19, 2017 at 10:38 pm

Solution. Have the residents of Los Altos Hills fund all the schools in the area. This will solve the debt, funding, and circulate the majority of income back into society.

6 people like this
Posted by Haw Haw
a resident of another community
on Jul 19, 2017 at 10:44 pm

Half of Los Altos Hills is in the Palo Alto Unified School District. Why not just have Palo Alto fund all the new schools?

6 people like this
Posted by Foaming at the month
a resident of another community
on Jul 20, 2017 at 8:25 am

District: Purchase the most economical land that there is and put the Charter School there, i.e. purchase a site in Los Altos Hills where cost per acre is less than commercial areas.

BCS: Stop being obstinate and threatening and get reasonable!

10 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of The Crossings
on Jul 20, 2017 at 9:53 am

The LA School District never had a plan - just a general statement of why it wanted to borrow (another) $150 million by selling bonds. Another newspaper first refused to endorse the bond measure and then endorsed it under pressure from local movers and shakers. The District should consider building on an existing school site or sites. Land is now too expensive.

8 people like this
Posted by Dual Concerns
a resident of another community
on Jul 20, 2017 at 11:52 am

There are multiple issues for LASD. They have brought up this issue of the school population living in in the little part of Mountain View north of El Camino. It's at 600 kids and has been for about 10 years now, but there is every sign with all of this new housing construction with permits in the pipeline. The population for school age kids will almost certainly increase to 900 kids from that small area. This happens even if every 100 units only generates 20 kids, which is the typical experience with apartments.

So they have gone to the Mountain View city council and said "Please help us with these kids because it's your construction which is causing this growth." So the city council has had votes and has agreed to use public benefit money from the construction and park fees to make a sizable contribution to create a school site in the area.

The LASD administration and board have this idea they can get by with just 3 or 4 acres for a school in that area, and then they hope to get 1 or 2 acres of city land adjacent to that in order to build a substandard school, but a school nonetheless. You can't justify such a small site anywhere else, because they rely on designating this as a dense urban area and that's the closest LASD comes to that anywhere in its territory.

So how can you then focus solely on the charter school, which should be centrally located because it draws kids from all over the district, with less than 20% coming from Los Altos Hills?

At the same time one can't help but notice that there is room to construct a home for the charter school on several of the district's existing sites. So indeed, why buy land for that? The enrollment at these existing schools is trending down, and the sites are truly underutilized. Covington is the prime example, because it is 16 acres of land and is currently used for a single 500 student school that serves many of these Mountain View students who are 3 miles away from that location. So, building the school they have promised Mountain View city officials frees up Covington for additional uses. it's also a very old site with run down structures that the district has indicated need seismic repair to meet current codes to help keep the roof standing when the big one strikes. No other district site has had this problem, and this was a unique site built as the MAIN Jr High back in the 1950's, with Egan and Blach serving much smaller populations than did Covington. Only 1 out of 9 or so buildings at Covington does not date back to that 1950's era. The number of buildings is greater than any other elementary school and the other sites have actually undergone more modernization.

4 people like this
Posted by Dual Concerns
a resident of another community
on Jul 20, 2017 at 11:56 am

Re Covington, I should have said that 2 non-classroom buildings at Covington are newly built about 15 years ago. the remainder of the 9 or so buildings date back to the 1950's and all have this structural issue with their roof design and age and lack of modernization, having been built for Jr High use in the 1950's. The library and the MPR are newer buildings added more recently.

10 people like this
Posted by Robyn
a resident of another community
on Jul 21, 2017 at 2:30 pm

Return the money with interest to the property owners who pay annually.
There is no plan.

3 people like this
Posted by Backroom Dealings
a resident of another community
on Jul 24, 2017 at 5:33 pm

Worse than not having solid plans. There are obviously secret plans in place to use the bond money in some particular way. This depends on decisions having nothing to do with the bond money, but those decisions are not being discussed. The factors are so many that it's hard to list them all, but here's the big 3:

(a) Should this school in San Antonio accommodate more than the district's current 500 per school model? Should it in fact accommodate twice as many students? (They seem to be angling that way. This is not out of line for the number of likely students within 3-5 years after this school gets built, but consider that the district has other schools to which the residents are now assigned. These schools have only 500 kids each but are on 10 acre park-like grounds that are not located too far from this San Antonio area. Other students in other schools travel that far in some cases (except the ones assigned to Covington which is 3 miles away, about 200 kids).

(b) If this area is to be treated differently, might it not make sense to plan on two school locations to serve its residents. One could be at Egan Jr High which is very close to the area. There are 7 acres at Egan currently operated separately anyway, serving Bullis Charter School. So the general San Antonio/El Camino area could have TWO neighborhood schools, each with 450-600 students, as the district repeatedly espouses.

(c) Would it make sense to use these 2 San Antonio sites to meet the equivalent facilities needs for Bullis Charter School--both sites in the general San Antonio/El Camino Real area serving a total of 900-1000 students in the Charter School (which has 20% Mountain View residents, after all)?

So you see, these UNANSWERED and UNASKED questions are material factors in whatever decision ensues, but no excuse for secrecy applies.

7 people like this
Posted by Rrie-King Mouron
a resident of Rengstorff Park
on Jul 25, 2017 at 10:28 pm

If every stakeholder only cares about themselves, there is never going to be a consensus on what to do.

To me the logic is take the biggest lot (Covington) and share it w BCS or just shut it down and make it BCS. Spend most of the money on the other LASD schools.

I'm sure the students will be happy, the parents should be happy (BCS is among the highest ranked elementary schools in CA, better than Palo Alto schools and def better than all LASD schools), homeowners will have to suck up the minor TRAFFIC problem, but c'mon - you can face the traffic around the school or 280 or ElCamino but you cant escape it. The bay area population is increasing and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

5 people like this
Posted by ResidentSince1982
a resident of another community
on Jul 29, 2017 at 2:08 pm

ResidentSince1982 is a registered user.

It's not even clear that there are any traffic issues if Covington is used. The district-wide charter school is mostly at Egan right now, next to 660 Jr High kids. Both of the schools on this site come from a long ways away. meaning more drop off traffic. At Covington, the charter kids would actually on average travel less distance because it's more centrally located. Covington used to be its own Jr High and was next to a Parochial school located on the site of the adjacent Rosita Park. It's a site designed for 2 schools at once. Supposedly Covington is a neighborhood school so those kids come from close by, unlike Egan Jr High kids. The one wrinkle is Covington is currently padded out with 200 kids all the way from the Crossings and Old Mill Condo's area of Mountain View, and so you can bet those kids arrive in a car. Given those kids a neighborhood school closer to home, and they aren't loading up Covington with that traffic any more.

But beyond everything, the charter school staggers its schedule with multiple start and stop times depending on grade level, so their traffic is spread out over a longer interval. Also they coordinate that not to overlap with the school sharing the site, because the Egan drop of traffic is by itself a nightmare with 660 kids all coming from a distance.

So, it's really a non issue to consider traffic. It's not like the San Antonio area or the El Camino and San Antonio or San Antonio and W. Portola intersections are any less congested than the Covington and El Monte or El Monte and Foothill Expressway. They are very close to the same.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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