Los Altos School District officials are inching toward a conclusion on whether a new campus planned for the San Antonio Shopping Center area in Mountain View will be a neighborhood elementary school or the new home of Bullis Charter School.
Earlier this month, the district's 10th Site Advisory Task Force held the first of multiple marathon meetings to decide what to recommend be done with 8.6 acres of land just north of the shopping center. School board members agreed last year to pursue purchasing the site -- acquiring it by means of eminent domain if necessary -- calling it the best shot at dealing with future enrollment growth in the northernmost part of the district.
Although task force members concede they aren't close to forming their recommendations to the school board quite yet, some of the members say the district's data and analysis favors moving the charter school to Mountain View as the least-disruptive option. Among other things, relocating Bullis would not require drawing new school boundaries, would be the quickest to implement and would preserve the income diversity that Mountain View students bring to several Los Altos School District schools.
"My sense is that the consensus is moving towards the charter school going there," said Mountain View Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, one of nine task force members.
Data presented at the meetings shows that a big portion of Los Altos School District student body's diversity, particularly lower-income families and English learners, comes from the San Antonio region of Mountain View. Of the 161 elementary school students in the district whose family incomes qualify them for free- and reduced-price lunch, 134 are from the San Antonio area. The remaining 27 come from the rest of the sprawling district's boundaries.
Creating a school for neighborhood students north of El Camino would put most of the lower-income students and English-learners in the district on one campus, rather than spread out between Santa Rita, Almond and Covington elementary schools.
District staff presented the demographic information in tandem with a 2016 report on school diversity that concluded students, on average, perform better in "socioeconomically and racially diverse schools" and that students from all backgrounds tend to do better on tests when school districts don't have concentrated pockets of poverty.
"Providing more students with integrated school environments is a cost-effective strategy for boosting student achievement and preparing students for work in a diverse global economy," according to the study.
Los Altos parent and task force member Joe Seither told the Voice that "educational equity" and pursuing a 10th site plan that benefits all the children in the district has been a top priority for task force members, and that the research on school diversity was "critical information" in that discussion.
"The demographic makeup of a campus of students can have a real material effect on the education environment," he said. "If you have some biases in the composition of your student body -- that can favor or undermine certain educational goals."
But the argument rang hollow to district resident David Roode, who said he questioned why diversity was being used as an argument against a neighborhood school in Mountain View. The number of low-income families in the area isn't particularly large in the first place -- he estimates that a neighborhood school might have close to 30 percent of lower-income students -- and is bound to change in a fast-evolving region of the city by the time a school finally opens.
"What's odd is planning four years in advance of opening a site to say that the population in that area doesn't need its own school," he said.
A permanent solution for Bullis?
District administrators dictated several built-in assumptions meant to guide the task force's discussion, including that the district would acquire land and put a new school there, and that the question was simply whether Bullis, a neighborhood school or some third, unnamed alternative would be best suited for the Mountain View location. Other assumptions include that the neighborhood school would serve kindergarten through sixth grade and support 600 students, while a Bullis campus would support up to 900 students.
Abe-Koga said that, based on the first two meetings, relocating Bullis seemed like the quickest to implement and would spare the community from redrawing school attendance boundaries. And while construction costs would be an estimated $15 million higher for Bullis than for a neighborhood school, a district-run school would cost close to $800,000 to operate each year.
She said representatives from The Crossings neighborhood, which is part of the Los Altos School District, also seemed interested in amenities like a track and field and a gym that a K-8 charter school would offer.
Crossings representative James Reilly declined to comment for this story, while Crossing representative Anthony Shortland did not respond to the Voice's requests for comment.
But the assumptions going into the task force don't make sense from the point of view of the charter school community, said Bullis parent and task force member Jill Jene. Charter school officials have made clear they are seeking to increase enrollment at the school by more than 30 percent in the coming years, bringing the total number of students well above the 900-student benchmark cited in the task force meetings. In other words, Bullis wouldn't even fit on the campus being proposed.
Bullis Charter School (BCS) is currently housed in portables located at both Blach Intermediate School and Egan Junior High School, and Jene worries that moving Bullis to the new site would only partially address the facilities needs of Bullis and leave the charter school split between multiple sites.
"A 10th site north of El Camino for BCS won't solve this facilities issue," she said. "It may be part of the solution for BCS, but it won't solve it."
Jene said she believes taxpayers don't want to spend the entirety of the district's $150 million Measure N bond just to support further fragmenting Bullis into three school sites, and that the district ought to reconsider buying land in Mountain View for a school.
"Taxpayers deserve to see a plan optimally using existing land to accommodate a 10th site," she said.
Earlier this year, the Mountain View City Council agreed to allow the Los Altos School District to "sell" the unused density allowed on the 8.6-acre property -- a process known as the transfer of development rights (TDRs) -- to developers throughout the city. The complex deal-making between the district and several Mountain View developers is expected to defray a large portion of the costs of buying the land, and would give the San Antonio neighborhood both a local school and open space.
Abe-Koga, at the time, said she felt strongly that the school should be a neighborhood school and not the new home for Bullis Charter School, and that the city should condition the financial support on the new campus being for Mountain View residents. She said her position hasn't changed much -- she still would prefer a neighborhood school -- but that she might be amenable to having Bullis in Mountain View if there was some kind of neighborhood preference.
"I come into this with an open mind, and also an understanding that we probably have to come to a compromise or a middle ground," Abe-Koga said. "So to me, if that were to happen -- if it were to be the charter school -- I would definitely want to require the neighborhood preference."
The next task force meeting is scheduled for May 30 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 201 Covington Road in Los Altos. Information on the meetings can be found at tinyurl.com/lasdsatf.