Los Altos School District board members on Monday night accused Bullis Charter School of not being forthcoming with its enrollment growth plans. Trustees say that years of good-faith cooperation between the two agencies is threatening to unravel.
The latest rumor is that the charter school plans to grow to 1,800 students, according to trustee Sangeeth Peruri, which could siphon students from Los Altos district schools and force school closures. He questioned whether Bullis parents would want that kind of "mega school" in the middle of Los Altos.
Bullis board chair Joe Hurd told the Voice after the meeting that the charter school and the district are still discussing enrollment projections confidentially with a mediator, and that it wouldn't be appropriate to reveal the charter school's growth plans in a public meeting at this time.
The centerpiece of the Sept. 10 conversation was what to do with a future school site in the San Antonio region of Mountain View. Los Altos School District officials are planning to acquire about 9.6 acres of land for a new school on the corner of Showers Drive and California Street, but have yet to take a stance on whether it should be a new elementary school for students in the area or a new campus for Bullis Charter School.
A recent task force convened by the school district sought to answer that very question but remained split until the end, with a solid majority of the members -- six of the nine -- recommending that Bullis be relocated to the new Mountain View campus. At each of the meetings, task force members faced uncertainty whether the new school, likely capped at 900 students, would accommodate the charter school's enrollment.
That same uncertainty hung over the board Monday night, with trustees venting that they can't get a straight answer from Bullis about how big it will grow in the coming years. The district has an agreement that constrains Bullis from growing past 900 students through the 2018-19 school year, but after that it's an open question. Bullis officials told the district's hired demographer earlier this year that they plan to increase enrollment to 1,200 students, and Peruri said one Bullis board member indicated the school could grow to 1,800 students.
Board president Vladimir Ivanovic said Bullis representatives declined to talk about their future plans at a public meeting, stating they were willing to discuss enrollment growth "in private with a mediator," which board member Jessica Speiser said seemed like a step back from recent collaborative efforts to find a permanent solution to the charter school's facility needs.
"It's disappointing that they are not willing to come speak to us about their enrollment growth," she said. "We need to work together to solve this."
Hurd said Bullis' leadership was blindsided by the comments at the meeting, and assumed that future enrollment growth was still confidential and the subject of an ongoing debate with the district. Bullis officials had been invited through a letter from Ivanovic dated Sept. 4, just days before the Monday meeting, he said.
"We responded to LASD on Friday and we told them in that letter that the info that they're looking for is part of mediation -- and they know this -- and that they are happy to meet with a mediator again," Hurd said.
The relationship between Bullis Charter School and the Los Altos School District has been cordial and more transparent in recent years, at least relatively speaking, after the two signed a five-year agreement ending litigation and long-standing feuds over use of facility space at Blach and Egan junior high schools, where Bullis is housed in portable classrooms. Adding weight to the ceasefire was the promise that the $150 million Measure N bond passed by voters in 2014 would provide a "permanent" facilities solution for the charter school.
That collaborative spirit has waned in recent months, Peruri said.
"Unfortunately, I think things are starting to change," he said. "Recent events have made it clear to me that BCS is no longer willing to work collaboratively with the district."
The most concerning development is that Bullis officials reportedly want to double the size of the student body in the coming years, he said, which could have a serious effect on district-run schools. He worried that it could lead to a dramatic decline in enrollment that could force the closure of one, two or even three Los Altos district schools. The charter school ought to be transparent about its plans, given the "dramatic impact" it could have on the community.
"If we are going to close multiple schools, I want to make sure we give our families as much time to plan as possible," he said.
Board members reject Egan relocation idea
Sidelined during the board's discussion was what to make of the task force's recommendations, which favored relocating Bullis to the Mountain View site. While board members only briefly weighed in, some trustees indicated that moving Bullis would be their preferred option as well.
Board member Steve Taglio said acquiring land for a new school gives the district a chance to resolve its longstanding problem of housing 10 schools on nine campuses. Putting Bullis on the Mountain View campus fixes that problem, while creating a new neighborhood school in Mountain View does not. Barring the closure of an existing school, he said moving the charter school is the only option.
"The idea of getting 10 schools on 10 sites is our priority," he said.
Board member Bryan Johnson said it would be helpful to know why the Bullis community is so against being relocated to a school north of El Camino Real.
"I don't know why a brand new facility that's only about half a mile away is unthinkable," Johnson said.
Hurd said the district has done little to include Bullis Charter School in the discussion on what to do with the tenth school site, and that the charter school's board of directors has yet to formally weigh in on which option it prefers. Involvement has mostly been limited to one parent from Bullis, Jill Jene, who was selected to represent the charter school community on the task force.
"LASD trustees have never once formally asked the BCS board to consider the tenth site placement," Hurd said.
Generally speaking, Hurd said he questions the logic behind placing Bullis, the largest school in the district, on what will be one of the smallest campuses.
Many of the parents who showed up at the meeting sharply opposed an alternative, floated by task force member and Mountain View City Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, to relocate Egan Junior High from its current location on W. Portola Avenue to the new Mountain View site. This would free up the former Egan facilities for Bullis Charter school to grow and would give students in the area a safe route to walk and bike to school.
Santa Rita parent Herb Marshall said that moving Egan to Mountain View runs contrary to the district's "neighborhood school model," while parent John Keeling called it a "no brainer" that traveling north of El Camino to Mountain View for school would be far more dangerous for Egan students than Bullis students.
"Junior high kids are walking by themselves, biking by themselves. Charter school kids -- maybe not so much," he said.
Parent Jim Flynn, whose office is at the corner of San Antonio and El Camino, said he was "very concerned" about not only traffic safety but general crime in the shopping center area, including bank robberies, hazmat emergencies and public urination.
Board members for the most part rejected the Egan proposal, dismissing the idea as not a serious option and not something the task force should have considered in the first place. Ivanovic said he "objected" to the way the option was raised by Abe-Koga, and that it constituted a "violation of the norms of the task force." Taglio said he was glad to see it wasn't popular among task force members, was never a viable option to the board, and that any complaints to the board about relocating Egan should be directed to the Mountain View City Council.
At a City Council meeting last week, Abe-Koga said she was "disappointed" in the task force process, particularly the failure to reach consensus on a recommendation, and that it was clear from the outset that the task force was stacked in favor of moving Bullis to the new site. She repeatedly described relocating Egan as a compromise that would circumvent having to redraw attendance boundaries, and that complaints about Egan kids traveling north of El Camino to get to school rang hollow.
"Later on the conversation turned into LASD kids having to cross El Camino to get to the school, to which I pointed out that the Mountain View kids are already doing that, but there just seemed to be very little concern about our kids," she said.