The city of Mountain View sped forward this year on its housing-rich vision for the future, ending 2017 with the approval of plans for enormous residential growth in North Bayshore. The path toward higher density and rapid population growth has largely guided the decisions of all three of Mountain View's school districts with a focus on planning for a big increase in students.
Throughout the year, the Mountain View Whisman School District, the Mountain View Los Altos High School District and the Los Altos School District have separately analyzed -- with varying levels of alarm -- how to accommodate the new students expected from a five-digit increase in homes slated to be built over the next decade. It's shaping up to be the city's biggest jump in population growth in several decades.
With a relatively paltry sum coming from developer fees, each district has been forced to draw up battle plans for acquiring land and building the classrooms required for the additional kids -- plans that include bond measures, deals with major developers and other creative ways to come up with funding.
The two major engines for residential growth in Mountain View are the North Bayshore and East Whisman areas, each one with the potential to add more than 9,000 new housing units to the city. But they aren't the only housing projects that have district officials worried. NASA recently announced plans to build 1,930 homes on its campus on Moffett Field, and there's a barrage of smaller developments that have been approved all over the city.
Even leaving out the NASA, North Bayshore and East Whisman housing plans, residential projects in the pipeline through 2024 exceeds 3,800 units, according to one analysis.
For leaders of the Mountain View Whisman School District, the latter half of the year marked a concerted effort to get a seat at the table with the city's planning staff, to make sure there would be requirements for developers to pitch in toward new schools. Without that kind of guarantee included in the North Bayshore Precise Plan, the district may have been on the hook for buying expensive land and building new facilities costing roughly $109 million, according to the latest estimates.
Between broad citywide growth and the North Bayshore and proposed East Whisman plans, the elementary school district is expecting an increase of 4,436 new students, increasing its total enrollment by around 85 percent over this year.
The expected surge in students represents a big shift in 2017, showing close collaboration between the city and the school district on a level that school board members have been yearning for in recent years. Trustees on the campaign trail last year argued that the district can't afford to be out of the loop on major developments winning city approval each year, which could add hundreds of students to schools that may not have any room.
For the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, the combination of projected enrollment growth and its aging facilities has school board members preparing to ask voters to approve a major bond measure sometime in 2018. Though the amount hasn't been decided yet, the district has put together a long list of important upgrades and new facilities totaling nearly $300 million.
The ballot measure would mark a big change of pace for the district, which has a conservative history when it comes to asking voters for money -- it doesn't have a parcel tax, and recent bond measures have been relatively small in both size and scope. Similar to Mountain View Whisman, the high school district also has a guarantee enshrined in the North Bayshore Precise Plan that developers will help pay for the influx of new students generated in the northernmost region of the city.
In the final stretch of the year, the Los Altos School District made progress in its years-long bid to buy land for a school in Mountain View, with its sights set on a property north of the San Antonio Shopping Center. Home to the Old Mill Office Center and a former Safeway store, it's the ideal place to site a new school, according to district officials -- though they haven't decided whether it will be a neighborhood school for nearby residents or the new home of Bullis Charter School.
About 27 percent of the school district's enrollment comes from Mountain View, and almost all of the projected growth is expected to come from the greater San Antonio area. School board members and top district staff have maintained that a school north of El Camino Real is a top priority for the district's Measure N bond, even if it requires a lot of time, money and carefully constructed deals with the city of Mountain View.
Making room in crowded schools
Throughout 2017, the Mountain View Whisman School District took a close look at how to sort out a chronic problem: Some schools are acked to the brim with kids, while others have empty seats. Families living practically next door to Bubb and Huff elementary schools found themselves on waiting lists for their own neighborhood school, prompting an uproar that eventually led to temporary classrooms being added as a short-term fix.
The school district finally closed the books on a new set of attendance boundaries aimed at fixing the problem. Set to take effect in 2019, the boundaries shift hundreds of students out of the overly full schools, and zone more than 450 kids to the new Slater Elementary, which is scheduled to open the same year. The new boundaries weren't without controversy, but it did wrap up a protracted process that started in early 2015, and theoretically should help the overcrowding problem.
But which students will be grandfathered into schools under the old boundaries, and which students will have to move right away, remains unresolved going into 2018. The school district recently launched a new effort to make sweeping changes to its enrollment priorities to accommodate the new boundaries, and school board members signaled they are willing to enforce the idea of "neighborhood" schools and limit the free flow of students enrolling campuses all over the city.
A new approach to pilot programs
Trying out new initiatives aimed at narrowing the achievement gap and simultaneously helping high- and low-achieving students was a major goal for the Mountain View Whisman School District this year, but the first few months of 2017 showed the perils of moving too quickly. When district officials launched the wholesale adoption of a new math curriculum for sixth grade -- an online, digital platform called Teach To One -- it caused a firestorm of opposition.
Close to 180 parents signed a petition calling for the district to drop Teach To One immediately, calling the program deeply flawed and chastising the district for failing to carefully vet the program. Parents also blasted the district for implementing a pilot program in every single sixth grade classroom, which they argued was not a pilot program's representative sample, but rather a wholesale adoption of an untried curriculum.
Later, it was revealed that the district had implemented Teach To One at Crittenden and Graham middle schools without signing a written contract with Teach to One. And when the contract finally came before the board on a public agenda, it was placed on the consent agenda rather than being scheduled for a public discussion and was expected to cost over $500,000. The contract was quickly pulled and district officials later signed off on a settlement amount of $149,000. Emails between district officials acquired by the Voice via a Public Records Act request showed that there was a barrage of complaints from teachers from the outset. They also revealed that there was a go-between promising that a corporate donor would pay for Teach to One, but the donor never materialized.
Since then, the district has adopted a new pilot program process that involves community and staff input prior to adoption, which has already been put to the test.