Bullis Charter School would be the best fit for a new campus in the San Antonio area of Mountain View, community members and school officials on a Los Altos School District task force agreed Monday evening -- a recommendation that runs contrary to the wishes of Mountain View City Council members seeking a school for neighborhood students.
The school board is set to make a final decision later this year.
The task force recommendation weighs in on a lengthy debate over whether a future school in the San Antonio neighborhood should serve the nearly 800 students residing in the area, or if it would be better suited as a campus for Bullis Charter School.
While the majority of task force members backed the latter option, the opinion came down amid a whole lot of critical, unanswered questions about whether the charter school would even fit on the small campus, and if City Council members would approve the school district's land acquisition plans if a neighborhood school was off the table.
School district officials are planning to acquire about 9.6 acres of land on the corner of Showers Drive and California Street -- currently home to several businesses including a Kohl's department store, Sushi 88 and Pearl Cafe -- for a 10th school campus and some adjacent park land. District administrators and school board members have long argued that the additional campus is an important step to prepare for future enrollment growth, and are relying heavily on the city of Mountain View for financial support through a process called transfer of development rights.
Five of the eight task force members present, Lara Daetz, Raquel Matteroli, Sandra McGonagle, James Reilly and Tom McGovern, voted for moving Bullis to Mountain View as their first choice, which was largely seen as the least disruptive option for the district. It would avoid having to redraw attendance boundaries, would not necessitate the opening or closing of a district-run school and could theoretically house the charter school's full enrollment all on one location -- provided Bullis never grows beyond 900 students. Charter school board members have previously made clear they intend to increase enrollment to up to 1,200 students in the coming years, which district officials said would not be a possibility on the site.
While she said she couldn't speak for the charter school's board of directors, task force member and Bullis parent Jill Jene said it's been clear that from the start that the charter school community dislikes the idea of having to travel farther into a traffic-congested region of Mountain View to get to school, and that the task force shouldn't assume that a 900-student campus will sufficiently house the charter school in future years. She described it as a partial solution that is sure to blow through most of the district's $150 million of Measure N bond money.
"This isn't going to solve the problem, but it is going to spend all of the money," she said.
In making the Monday vote, the majority of task force members also rejected a proposal by Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga to relocate Egan Junior High School to the new Mountain View school site, which she admitted was a little "out there" but could present a much-needed compromise in the debate between moving Bullis and creating a new neighborhood school. She said most of the feedback on her idea has been positive.
"I was expecting (opposition) and I hadn't heard it, and I would've been the first person to hear it," she said.
Under her proposal, Egan would move to the San Antonio campus, which would theoretically leave the former Egan site on Portola Avenue open for Bullis Charter School to consolidate its campus and grow into the existing middle-school facilities like a hermit crab with a new shell. Crossings resident and task force member Anthony Shortland said Abe-Koga's approach made the most sense purely from a numbers perspective, given that the charter school could grow to 1,200 students and the new campus has enough space to support Egan now and in the future.
"There really is only one solution, and that's to put a consolidated charter school on the Egan site and move Egan to the new site," he said.
But other task force members sharply disagreed, describing it as a misstep that would enrage community members. McGovern said moving Egan, whether enrollment data supports it or not, would be an "inflammatory" move that would upset Los Altos community members and fail to bring a peaceful end to a long history of hostility between the charter school and the school district. Daetz told Abe-Koga that she may not be receiving negative feedback on her idea because the community doesn't believe her proposal is serious.
"People are assuming that it's so out of the realm of possibility that they don't need to give organized feedback," Daetz said.
One of the major concerns at the meeting was whether the Mountain View City Council will support the idea of moving the charter school to Mountain View, or whether the council will condition its financial support for the land acquisition on the new campus accommodating neighborhood residents. The city is pitching in $23 million in park funds, which will pay for joint-use field space adjacent to the school facilities, as well as allowing the school district to "sell" to developers rights to the unused density allowed on the site, for an total of $79.3 million.
The latest vote by council members in June reaffirmed that the Los Altos district should ultimately decide what kind of school is opened on the new campus, on a 4-3 vote, with Councilman John McAlister in the majority. But task force members worried that McAlister may have to recuse himself in future decisions after recent complaints surfaced that he may have a conflict of interest.
Crossings resident James Reilly criticized the idea that the City Council should be butting into the debate at all, and said that Abe-Koga and the rest of the council are taking a "half-step" too far into the debate on what to do with the campus. It's fine to rake the district over the coals to make sure the campus facilities available to the public are a good use of taxpayer funds, but who attends the school is not the council's business, he said.
"I have a philosophical problem with the Mountain View City Council telling schools what to do, whether it's $1 or $100 million," he said. "I've got a bit of a problem understanding where you get that authority."
Abe-Koga countered by arguing that it's Mountain View's land and taxpayer dollars at stake in the district's plans, and that the vast majority of her constituents in Mountain View are in favor of a San Antonio school that serves children living in the region who -- up until this point -- have had to travel across major roads to get to school.
"There's a perception of an equity issue in this debate," she said. "This is an area where we have the most diversity (in the district) and it's low-income Latino kids who have to trek over across El Camino to get to school. This is an opportunity to have a school in the neighborhood."
Another big consideration, she said, is that Mountain View residents will have to bear the brunt of denser office development throughout the city due to the sale of development rights, giving the council an even greater responsibility to ensure city residents are getting a good deal.
The decision by task force members mirrors a straw vote in May, when a majority of the members also picked relocating Bullis to Mountain View as their first choice. Task force member Joe Seither, who could not make the Aug. 27 meeting, had previously joined McGovern, McGonagle, Reilly and Matteroli in supporting the charter school relocation as the top option at the May 30 meeting. The task force was supposed to meet again sometime in June or July to make a final recommendation, but summer scheduling conflicts pushed the meeting to late August.
Superintendent Jeff Baier told the Voice that the school board is slated to discuss the task force's recommendations on Sept. 10, and is expected to weigh in with a final decision on the site's usage in the next six to eight weeks.