Mountain View is on a fast track for housing growth, with dozens of major developments in the pipeline and ambitious plans to rezone the city's industrial regions and office parks into dense, urban neighborhoods.
But as the city welcomes thousands of new residents, the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District has quietly struggled to accommodate the influx of teens on campuses that were never designed to handle this many students. Increasingly tech-savvy initiatives and creative STEM programs are being housed in old classrooms that predate cellphones, and the district's school board has had honest debates about whether portables would be situated on top of the parking lots or the tennis courts.
And with a whopping 46 housing projects either under construction or in the pipeline -- the vast majority in Mountain View -- it's only going to get more difficult to cram students onto campuses. That's why district officials are asking voters to approve a $295 million bond measure on the June 5 ballot, which they say would go toward projects to support current students and future growth over the next five years.
The big ask to voters is a rare one for Mountain View-Los Altos. The district doesn't levy a parcel tax, and has pursued only relatively small bond measures in the 1990s and again in 2010 -- each with a fairly narrow focus. The upside is that the district's current tax rate on property owners is the smallest of any district in the county, but classrooms and other facilities dating back to the 1970s and even the 1950s are showing the wear and tear of time.
Taken altogether, Mountain View and Los Altos high schools were really only designed to house 3,600 students -- or about 1,800 at each school, according to Superintendent Jeff Harding. By comparison, Los Altos High School currently has 2,240 students, and Mountain View High isn't too far behind at 1,960 students, Harding said.
Recent construction using the $41.3 million Measure A bond, passed by voters in 2010, has only gone toward increasing classroom space, Harding said, meaning libraries, cafeterias, gyms and administrative buildings are serving more students in increasingly cramped spaces. And the district's new focus on student services, particularly mental health services, has forced school staff to work out of tiny spaces never intended for confidential counseling.
"We're in the closets -- what closets can be converted into counseling space -- at this point," Harding said.
Demographic projections show that the school district's total enrollment is also expected to grow from about 4,300 students this year to 5,023 by the 2021-22 school year, and there is simply no place to put that many students, Harding said. He argued that the facilities bond is the only feasible strategy for dealing with this kind of growth, and there is no real alternative to fall back on.
"There is no good 'plan B,' there is no good way to accommodate this many students," he said.
The bond will cost property owners $30 per $100,000 of assessed value, the maximum amount allowed under Proposition 39, which allows measures to pass with 55 percent of the vote if it stays below a certain cost to taxpayers. The bond has a 15-year term, rather than a 30-year term, which Harding said is a prudent move that is going to save district property owners money in the long run.
Master plan guides construction
Earlier this year, the Mountain View-Los Altos school board approved a Facilities Master Plan that would act as the template for how to spend Measure E bond money, complete with new construction, modernization and upgrades at nearly every facility in the district, totaling more than $100 million in upgrades for both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools.
Plans call for a net increase of 28 new classrooms -- fit on the existing campuses using two-story construction -- along with a new gym at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools. Nearly $70 million is set aside to build new "student services" buildings at the schools, which would be a large multi-use structure combining administrative and student services, a wellness center, a testing center and student union space.
The plan also includes $15 million to build a new two-story facility for Freestyle Academy, a popular alternative program that focuses on art and digital-media projects. Freestyle is currently operating out of five old portables behind the district office, previously occupied by Alta Vista High School, that date back to 1973 and are bent, damaged, rusty and show signs of water damage, according to a 2016 report.
Although other school districts use master plans to prioritize a smaller list of projects, school board members and district officials are asking voters to approve a bond that would pay for nearly every project on the list.
There is no formal campaign against Measure E, but opponents argue that the ballot measure is unnecessarily expensive. Official ballot arguments, signed by Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association president Mark W.A. Hinkle and Jennifer Imhoff, chair of the Libertarian Party of Santa Clara County, encourage voters to reject the measure because of the hefty price tag, and question how much the district actually needs the money.
Measure A was passed just eight years ago to construct new classrooms and science labs -- a similar goal to Measure E -- and yet it was done at one-seventh of the cost, the argument states. The argument also points out that the school district already has deep pockets and spends more money per student, on average, than most districts in the state, and therefore isn't hurting for cash for capital improvements.
Hinkle did not respond to an interview request by the Voice
School board member Fiona Walter argued that Measure E, despite its broad scope and lengthy project list, is fiscally responsible. She said the district could have sought up to $425 million and included additional and more expensive projects, but she and other board members opted for a more conservative approach by asking $295 million. Board members including Walter had earlier sought to put a smaller bond measure on the ballot last year, but ultimately agreed to $295 million in order to avoid going back to voters to ask for more money in the foreseeable future.
Not a solution to North Bayshore
One of the big unknowns is what kind of school facilities the district will need to build -- and where -- to accommodate thousands of students projected to live in the newly zoned North Bayshore Precise Plan area, home to Google's headquarters. Measure E and the district's Facilities Master Plan do not include planning for growth in the city's tech park.
Last year, the Mountain View City Council approved residential zoning for North Bayshore that would permit up to 9,850 homes in the area. Mountain View-Los Altos High School District originally estimated that the housing would generate 1,108 additional high school students, a number that was later refined down to 785 students.
In order to mitigate the huge increase in students, the city staffers added language to the North Bayshore Precise Plan stating that any major residential developers in the area -- which implicitly means Sobrato and Google -- will have to submit a mitigation plan which could include money, facilities, land or some type of help to accommodate the additional students.
Harding and school board members are banking on that promise, and say that future growth will be taken care of outside of the Measure E bond. The East Whisman Precise Plan, also in the works, is expected to include up to 5,000 homes, and is also outside the scope of the bond. District officials have yet to tally how many new students East Whisman is expected to generate.
As a precaution, the Facilities Master Plan includes $30 million set aside for unanticipated enrollment growth above and beyond the district's own projections, which could be used for a total of 20 more classrooms. Harding said the money is discretionary, and won't cost district taxpayers a dime if it's not needed.
"If it doesn't happen, we don't have to sell those bonds," Harding said.
Despite the uncertainty, Walter said that Measure E will still be a useful strategy for reducing the immediate effects on North Bayshore housing. Those students won't come all at once, she said, and Mountain View and Los Altos high schools are going to need additional space to act as a sort of staging area until new school facilities designated for North Bayshore students are built.