For years, Los Altos School District officials have been aggressively searching for money and land to build a new school in Mountain View, calling it an expensive but necessary strategy for addressing a burst of enrollment growth in the San Antonio region of the city.
But the growth projected in Mountain View is likely to be entirely offset by a larger trend showing that the district's enrollment is shrinking. Demographic data presented to the school board Monday night shows that district enrollment shrank by more than 250 students since its peak in the 2014-15 school year, and registration for the upcoming school year shows no sign of an upswing.
The only exception, according to the report, is Bullis Charter School, which has turned away a record number of families due to space constraints and plans to increase enrollment by more than 30 percent in the coming years.
The vast majority of anticipated housing growth in the district -- and with it, more school-age residents -- stems from projects in the San Antonio area that are expected to generate up to 342 students, according to demographer Shelly Lapkoff. But that's the high end projection, she said, with the "middle" estimate closer to 192 students.
Even then, the numbers in the report may still be padded. The projections take into account a major housing development along California Street near San Antonio Road, created by a mixed-use development proposed by Greystar that includes 641 housing units. The district is seeking to buy that property from the developer -- even if it means forcing a sale through eminent domain -- for a new school campus, which would eliminate the housing and its new students.
The report took a liberal approach to estimating enrollment growth from redevelopment of the eastern side of the San Antonio Shopping Center, owned by Maryland-based Federal Realty. The developer, who put the project on hold in 2016, originally proposed adding between 1,840 and 2,650 residential units. The demographic report estimates 538 new students would be generated by the project based on the assumption that all 2,650 units would be built.
Lapkoff cautioned board members that it's difficult to predict enrollment decades in the future, and that housing growth in the Mountain View portions of Los Altos School District present a big unknown.
"There will no doubt be new housing coming down the pike," Lapkoff said. "That is not in our forecast."
Trustees had little discussion about the demographic update -- one of many presented to the board in recent years -- with board member Sangeeth Peruri saying his inclination is to "disregard" short-term decreases in enrollment, calling it "irrelevant" in the face of long-term facilities needs not addressed in the report. He argued that the district's track record shows planning based on enrollment declines had led to horrible decisions, like closing schools and selling off district-owned land, and that he wanted to avoid making the same mistake again.
"If we're doing planning on a 30-year cycle, you're probably better off not looking at the short term," he said.
At the same time, however, Peruri acknowledged that the enrollment decline was curious, given the lengthy economic growth in the region, which he believed should coincide with rising birth rates.
Board members are unlikely to change course on plans to buy land for a new school north of El Camino Real based on the report. The number of students in the San Antonio region climbed to 689 in 2017 and could break 1,000 due to future housing growth, yet the area does not have a dedicated school. Instead, the neighborhood is carved into three attendance areas split between Covington, Almond and Santa Rita elementary schools.
The district's leadership also argued, when they pitched the Measure N bond to voters in 2014, that schools are already too crowded even with stable enrollment, and that the district prides itself on a model of small school campuses. When the district had similar enrollment in the 1970s, it had 12 schools instead of the nine it has today.
Board president Vladimir Ivanovic told the Voice in an email that the district needs to plan ahead, particularly for the Federal Realty project, which on its own could generate enough students to fill one and a half schools. He said the district is making a financially sound move by trying to secure land and a new school site before a spate of enrollment just beyond the horizon.
"Costs of both land and building are not going to go down, so it is fiscally prudent to do what we can now rather than later to deal with a scenario that is likely to happen," Ivanovic said.
A bigger Bullis?
Bullis Charter School appears to be having the opposite problem, with too many students clamoring to get in. An agreement brokered between the charter school and the school district limits charter school growth through June 2019, but demand to get into the school is reaching staggering new heights.
A record-breaking 1,300 families applied for fall 2018 registration for the charter school, meaning that more than 12 children had to be turned away for every child accepted through the lottery, according to Bullis Charter School board chair John Phelps.
Lapkoff told board members that she received a letter from Bullis Charter School officials stating they intend to increase enrollment by 300 students starting in fall 2019, and that the district could expect a gradual increase of Bullis enrollment from the current 829 students today to 1,232 students in 2025.
The letter comes amid ongoing negotiations between the charter school and the Los Altos School District on a new multi-year facilities use agreement, and it remains unclear how much Bullis will be allowed to grow under the new terms. The prior agreement, which trustees voted on in 2014, allowed Bullis to grow from 711 students in 2014-15 to 900 students in 2018-19.
Phelps told the Voice that he can't comment on the ongoing negotiations, but that it's been "painful" to turn away so many children due to the limited space provided by the district.
"It's very disheartening to turn away literally hundreds of families every year because of lack of facilities," he said. "Our intention is to work constructively with LASD to look at and explore possibilities for accepting more students after the five-year agreement expires in 2019."
Allowing that kind of growth could throw a wrench into future plans for the 10th school site in Mountain View. A new Site Advisory Task Force is weighing whether to put the charter school or a neighborhood school on an 8.6-acre site north of the San Antonio Shopping Center, and the built-in assumptions are that the charter school -- if built in Mountain View -- would have 900 students. Bullis parents, for the most part, have told board members they would not want the charter school relocated to Mountain View.