Hundreds of residents, parents and students packed the Mountain View High School theater Monday night to start a long and contentious debate over whether to add stadium lights to to the district's athletic fields.
The Aug. 13 meeting, which kicked off with three hours of public comments, drew a clear line between those favor of and against installing field lights at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools. Both sides were heavily represented and people spoke passionately for their cause.
Mountain View-Los Altos High School District board members agreed at the end of the meeting to continue studying the idea, but shied away from picking a side.
Proponents at the meeting, largely comprising students, parents and a mix of coaching and music staff, made a pitch to trustees that the lights are long overdue, and that the district has an unfortunate reputation as having the only high schools in the county without lights. What that means for students, they argued, is too many teams competing for not enough field space, an abrupt cutoff to practice at sundown and games scheduled too early in the day for working parents to come watch.
But people living near both schools, many of them Los Altos residents due to Mountain View High's proximity to the city's border, said adding field lights would extend a myriad of school-related problems they are already miffed about into the evening hours. They argued that everything from loud public address systems and a "torturous" metronome for band practice to traffic woes and blinding swimming pool lights have been ruining the quiet nature of the surrounding neighborhoods for years.
Rosemary Wadden, a 38-year resident who lives near Los Altos High, said the quality of life in the neighborhood has steadily declined since the 1990s as student parking began lining nearby streets, and worsened in the 2000s when the district installed a sound system that cranked up the volume and caused an echo. She urged the board to reconsider what she called "arbitrary" upgrades in favor of academics, and said she felt residents like herself have been excluded from hidden, long-term plans to install lights.
"We're told the football booster club began the push for these upgrades two years ago," Wadden said, adding that many residents only caught wind of the idea in June. "We dissenters have effectively been silenced by being kept out of the loop."
Los Altos resident David McIntyre told board members that the serenity of Los Altos neighborhoods is already "under siege" by worsening traffic and airplane noise, and that installing field lights would be the latest in a string of disruptive changes. By allowing evening events at the schools, he said, the district would likely incur a host of unexpected costs related to increased law enforcement, traffic mitigation and even public nuisance lawsuits. He argued the district's reputation for being the only district without lights is a virtue, not a problem.
"That's a good reason to not do it," he said. "We're a special place, let's keep it that way."
Although neighbors said the district has survived for decades without field lights and saw no compelling need for the lights, several parents and students begged to differ. Mountain View High School parent Paul Steffen said Friday games have a meager turnout because they are held in the afternoon, and that many parents don't have the luxury of leaving work during day to show up and support their children. What's more, enrollment at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools has rapidly increased in recent years and will continue to grow, giving district officials a reason to make the most of the existing space.
Student Jack Franks told board members that there's no way to turn football games into community events when they're held right after school or on Saturday morning, and that the limits on space and daylight means district teams always have less practice time than competing teams.
"It sucks that for the beginning of our season we have to share a grass field with five sports teams," he said. "We're on this small part of the field and we are always under-practiced."
While the district's leadership rarely waded into the debate, Associate Superintendent Mike Mathiesen said the lack of lights has been a logistics problem for a while. When it rains, for example, varsity and junior varsity soccer teams have to take turns playing on the turf field, and one is likely to run out of daylight. Recruiting coaches -- who often have other jobs -- can also be difficult when they're asked to show up at 3:30 or 4 p.m. depending on where they're traveling from.
Early estimates show installing LED lights would cost $695,725 at Mountain View High and $652,925 at Los Altos High, excluding the $200,000 projected cost for an environmental review of the proposals. District officials made clear at the meeting that the $295 million Measure E bond voters passed in June would not be used to finance the project, and said they would need to explore other avenues to pay for the project.
The common theme of the night was that the neighbors around both campuses have been vexed for some time by loud and intrusive school activities and what they perceived to be a lack of respect for the surrounding homes, which made the idea of stadium lights all the more unpalatable. Michael Schuh, who lives a few blocks from the school, said the pool lights up the neighborhood at night, the metronome sneaks its way through closed windows and announcements during the Turkey Trot event are extraordinarily loud. He said the tone of the meeting may have been different if some of these ongoing problems had been addressed.
Los Altos resident Heather Lattanzi voiced frustration that residents like herself feel they have no one to turn to with complaints. Mountain View police aren't interested in taking calls from Los Altos residents, she said, while Los Altos police are uninterested in complaints related to Mountain View High because it falls outside the city's boundaries.
Board member Joe Mitchner said he would be open to moving forward with stadium lights if the district could put together a comprehensive plan on how to finance the project, as well as crystal-clear guidelines for use of the lights. He said something along the lines of five nights of football games until 10 p.m., between five and 10 nights until 8:30 p.m. for other teams and more frequent use of the lights for practice up until 7:30 p.m. could be a reasonable approach. Despite the emotionally charged language throughout the evening, Mitchner said he saw the potential for the community to come together.
"It's going to be hard to make everybody happy, but I do think there is some middle ground," Mitchner said.
Board member Phil Faillace said the Monday meeting should be considered the start of a lengthy process, and that the district should figure out limits on light and PA system usage -- which should include an open dialogue with neighbors -- before conducting the environmental review. He compared the contentious idea to a heavy aircraft that's going to need plenty of distance before takeoff.
"Whenever you're trying to get a big issue off the ground, it's got to get a lot of play, and have a long runway before it takes off," he said. "That's where we are. We're at the start of the runway."