Amid intense debate over what kind of school Los Altos School District should plant in Mountain View's San Antonio neighborhood, a group of task force members is now considering relocating Egan Junior High School to the area in order to make room for Bullis Charter School to grow.
Last month, the district convened a Site Advisory Task Force made up of residents and district employees to hammer out recommendations on the new school campus. The school district is forging ahead on its strategy of buying land in the San Antonio shopping center, but needs to figure out what kind of school to put there.
The school district could move Bullis, the region's popular charter school, to Mountain View or it could create a new neighborhood school designated for Mountain View residents living in the district. Task force members, as of May 30, appeared split between the two ideas, with a bare majority favoring moving the charter school in a straw vote.
But in the latest development in a long, controversial debate over future school plans, task force member and Mountain View City Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga suggested a third option -- moving Egan Junior High School to Mountain View. She said it could be a solid way to avoid controversy and disruption to the school community while benefiting San Antonio neighborhood residents with open space, a track, a gym and other facilities.
Bullis Charter School is currently housed in portables split between two campuses, Egan and Blach Intermediate School, and vacating the existing Egan campus could give the charter school much-needed space to grow and potentially consolidate on a single campus, Abe-Koga argued. It wouldn't necessitate any boundary changes because no new school would be created, and nearby residents would benefit from the broad range of amenities that come with a junior high school.
Egan, currently located along West Portola Avenue in Los Altos, is about one mile away from the 9.65-acre site Los Altos School District officials are considering for a new school.
Up until the May 30 meeting, the only two serious options under consideration were moving Bullis or creating a new neighborhood school, triggering some task force members to take a hesitant approach to this new, un-vetted idea of relocating Egan until district staff could pull together more information on costs and potential impacts.
Some task force members raised concerns that moving Egan would do nothing to address the growing number of students living in the Mountain View region of the district north of El Camino Real, while others warned of serious backlash from the local community if it lost a neighborhood school.
Task force member Tom McGovern, appearing to reject the idea outright, said Los Altos residents would sharply oppose the idea, while Assistant Superintendent Sandra McGonagle said staff, kids, former students and the community would feel like a big part of the community was lost if the district uprooted the school and moved it.
"This is the Egan I have known for 50 or 60 years," she said. "I don't think it's as simple as moving it down the road."
Abe-Koga challenged the idea that moving a junior high school, which houses students through brief two-year stints, is somehow a big disruption or a loss of historic value. She said that her children are going to attend Graham Middle School for three years, and there won't be some kind of long-standing attachment to the school once they leave.
"It's a two-year school and once your kids move out, you move on," she said. "I think the history is shorter, to me, and you can transition much more quickly."
Task force member James Reilly, a Crossings resident, said there were simply too many unknowns for him to back Abe-Koga's idea. The idea of moving Bullis students out of portables and into Egan's old buildings could be convenient, but he worried that it would come with necessary upgrades and modifications that could cost millions. It could run the risk of eating up the entirety of the district's $150 million bond.
"Conceptually, there is appeal here," he said. "But if you have to get rid of all the portables and spend $50 million on old Egan and $75 million on new Egan, then I think it doesn't work."
Council weighs in
Sending a strong signal to the task force Tuesday night, Mountain View City Council members voted 5-1 to formally urge the district to consider moving Egan to the Mountain View site, and doubled down on the council's preference for a neighborhood elementary school that would serve local residents in the San Antonio area.
Councilwoman Pat Showalter said a school for Mountain View students would be an important "focal point" for building a community in the area, which has been ripe with new residential development in recent years. Despite the growth, the area doesn't have a nearby public school and has a dismal 1.34 acres of park space per 1,000 residents.
"It really is park-poor and it doesn't have a school, and it clearly needs those two things," she said.
The June 12 vote doesn't change much, given that council members already made the neighborhood school preference clear to Los Altos School District officials back in January. At the time, the City Council agreed to provide financial support and incentives to make it feasible for the district to buy land for a school in the region, but stopped short of demanding a neighborhood school as a condition.
Mayor Lenny Siegel said he would prefer a neighborhood school, but said the city shouldn't use the cross-agency cooperation as leverage for a specific outcome. Councilman John McAlister, the sole dissenting vote Tuesday night, said the council shouldn't tell the district what to do with a new school site, and reiterated that council members lack the expertise to make that kind of decision.
Among the arguments against a neighborhood school, some task force members expressed concerns that it would concentrate too many of the school district's low-income and English-language learner students all on one campus. Currently, they are dispersed among Santa Rita, Almond and Covington elementary schools. Task force members have argued that splitting Mountain View students up could have a positive effect on academic performance for all district students, and that all three schools would lose valuable diversity if a neighborhood school is built in Mountain View.
Siegel said he wasn't sold on the argument, and that Mountain View kids shouldn't be forced to travel south into Los Altos as a means to balance out diversity for wealthier communities.
"In the absence of discriminatory policies -- deliberate racial segregation -- what you end up with is the poor kids always being the ones to travel the most ... because you have to split them up to integrate Los Altos Hills," he said. "That seems counter-productive in terms of social justice issues."
No easy solution
What became clear during the May 30 meeting is that none of the three options solved all of the district's problems, and were unlikely to quell long-standing feuds between the district and Bullis Charter School.
Creating an elementary school for Mountain View residents would be a relief valve for growing enrollment across the district, but wouldn't do much to solve the charter school's ongoing need for classrooms, blacktop and field space. Moving Bullis to Mountain View would vacate space on the district's two junior high schools and could pave the way for a long-awaited conversion to a three-year middle-school model, but kids north of El Camino Real would still be fragmented across multiple schools and would have to venture south into Los Altos past major roads to get to school.
Perhaps the most complicating facet of the debate is that Bullis officials want to expand the charter school from 900 to 1,200 students. Jill Jene, the charter school's representative on the task force, said there's no way all of those students are going to fit on a Mountain View site she described as a small "postage stamp" north of El Camino, conflicting with the expectation that moving Bullis would create a single campus for the charter school.
Bullis growing by more than 30 percent wasn't among the built-in assumptions going into the task force process, which assumed the Mountain View school would be for a 600-student neighborhood school or a 900-student charter school. But Jene said that was made in error -- Bullis officials have been keeping enrollment down in keeping with a five-year agreement with the district that's due to expire, and its growth plans have been made abundantly clear to the district.
In past years, the Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School have fought lengthy legal battles over facilities agreements and interpretations of the state's charter school law, Proposition 39, which states that the school district must provide "reasonably equivalent" facilities. Both parties brokered a five-year agreement in 2014, effectively ending all litigation, but it's unclear whether the cease-fire will continue when the agreement expires next year.
Task force member Joe Seither said his hope was that creating a campus with brand-new facilities, to the tune of $75 million, would go a long way toward easing the longstanding tensions between the district and the charter school. To grow beyond that school's capacity, he said, is a voluntary choice by Bullis to exceed the facilities they are given.
Nearing the end of the meeting, Jene expressed frustration that the task force was painting itself into a corner with an ever-increasing list of constraints to try to appease everyone. She said they couldn't consider building a school on existing land -- buying property in Mountain View was an assumption -- but task force members were also pushing against redrawing boundaries, moving schools or displacing students. School districts do these things all the time in order to adjust to changes in enrollment, she said.
Abe-Koga, in defending her idea of moving Egan, said that something has to give if the task force wants to reach a recommendation.
"You're going to have to let go," she said. "Everyone has to make a compromise."