Despite concerns about traffic and a desire to bring a local neighborhood school to families living in the San Antonio area, a majority of Mountain View City Council members agreed Tuesday night to let the Los Altos School District decide whether to relocate Bullis Charter School to Mountain View.
The council was split on a 5-2 vote, with members Margaret Abe-Koga and Pat Showalter opposed. The council majority said district officials should decide what kind of school would occupy a future campus in the San Antonio area, despite the major financial support from Mountain View to ensure that the densely populated neighborhood gets a local school and acres of park space.
The school district announced plans last month to acquire 8.6 acres of land at the corner of San Antonio Road and California Street, the site of a former Safeway and the Old Mill office complex, in order to build a school in the high-growth region of the district north of El Camino Real. To make it financially feasible in an expensive real estate market, the City Council agreed to allow the district to "sell" the unused density allowed on the property -- a process known as the transfer of development rights (TDRs) -- to developers throughout the city.
The City Council also agreed to commit up to $23 million in the city's park funds to help the district purchase the land. Field space at the school would be available for community use outside of school hours. The city has similar arrangements at several sites in the Mountain View Whisman School District.
But it remains unknown what kind of school would end up on the property. The school board has remained uncommitted on whether the Old Mill site will be the home to a new neighborhood school that serves families in the area, or if Bullis Charter School -- currently split between two district campuses and housed in portables -- should get a permanent school campus in Mountain View.
School board member Bryan Johnson told the council that a neighborhood school is "one of the options," but that there are a multitude of factors that need to go into the decision, including traffic mitigation, classroom design, operational costs and the district's responsibility under state law to provide Bullis Charter School with adequate school facilities.
"Whatever decision we make, we are always going to put students first," he said.
With the city bending over backward to help the school district, Councilwoman Showalter argued it was both reasonable and incumbent upon council members to demand that the school specifically serve the residents of Mountain View living near the campus. Since October last year, rumors have swirled that the school district is planning to put Bullis on the new site, even though it's a magnet school with a regional draw.
Neighborhood schools and parks play an important role in bringing communities together, Showalter said, and placing a school in the area that doesn't serve the local residents would cause a "tremendous" amount of traffic into and out of the area during pick-up and drop-off hours.
"I just feel that we have no business entering into an agreement with another government agency unless we stipulate the benefits we are going to get, and one of them is a neighborhood school," she said.
Throughout the meeting, council members made clear that allowing TDRs is a tough pill to swallow. Early project proposals by developers seeking to buy the density rights show that paving the way for a San Antonio school means several tall, dense office developments would need to go up elsewhere in the city, particularly in the East Whisman area. Abe-Koga said Mountain View residents throughout the city are going to be stuck dealing with the consequences of transferring development rights, and have largely favored a neighborhood school in the area.
Several residents spoke strongly in favor of a neighborhood school, calling it a necessary benefit for the city's constituents in order to offset the massive office developments that will be allowed thanks to the TDRs. Former Mountain View council member Ronit Bryant said the decision effectively replaces a dense residential project on the Old Mill property with office development elsewhere, which she called a "major loss" for the city that would worsen the city's jobs-housing imbalance. It may not be the City Council's job to get involved in the educational and school boundary policies of another agency, she said, but Mountain View residents shouldn't have to pay the price for a charter school that serves residents outside of the city.
"When the district's plans seem to depend on an unprecedented amount of help from the city of Mountain View, it is reasonable for the council to ensure that the result is beneficial to Mountain View as a whole," Bryant said.
Lea Hallert, a district parent who lives near Springer Elementary, said she supported a neighborhood school in the San Antonio area, and emphasized that traffic caused by the charter school would be a major problem. Hundreds of students in the area would be forced to travel into Los Altos for school, while 900 students attending Bullis Charter School would have to travel to the already-congested San Antonio area.
"There are 600 students from (north of El Camino) who have to drive almost 3 miles south to Almond, Santa Rita and Covington, and those students deserve the opportunity to have what my kids already get, which is the opportunity to walk or bike to school," Hallert said.
The district hasn't done a detailed analysis of how Bullis Charter School would affect traffic in the region, according to Tim Tosta, a land use attorney hired by the district. He said there are many "innovative" ways to reduce traffic and make sure it doesn't cause a huge snarl, and that it doesn't do the district any good to exacerbate existing traffic problems in the area.
Stephen Friberg, the president of the Greater San Antonio Neighborhood Association, said he spoke to many residents in the area prior to the meeting, and claims that they are roughly split between wanting a neighborhood school or Bullis Charter School. Getting a school with shared park space in the area is a top priority, he said, and it shouldn't depend on whether it's a charter school or a neighborhood school.
Although council members supported the idea of a neighborhood school, several expressed concerns that making it a requirement for the TDRs and park funds felt like overreach. Councilman John McAlister said the council is ill-suited to make a decision on how best to educate children, and that school district officials should be allowed to decide what to do with the land. Council members may have their misgivings about TDRs creating developments in a "hodgepodge" manner all over the city, but it's a necessary trade-off to get a school in the San Antonio area.
"If building a school and building a park is important to you, you need to move forward with the process that we have."
Councilman Ken Rosenberg agreed that it's not appropriate for the city to interfere with the decision of another public agency, and said he was concerned that adding conditions to the city's contribution would probably "kill the project," leaving the area with no school and no park.
Councilman Chris Clark, whose proposal ultimately won over the council majority, said he wanted a guarantee that the district have a transparent and public process in deciding who the new school will serve, and clearly spell out how elected leaders in Mountain View will have a seat at the table during that process. The motion stops short of granting the city veto power on the school board's final decision.
"At some point before these funds are transferred and before we sign on the dotted line, I think we either need to know what the use of that site is going to be, or we need to know a very clear process ... for how that is going to be decided," Clark said.