Early enrollment data shows that fewer kids are attending schools in the Los Altos district compared to prior years, shedding 160 students from last year. This marks the fourth year of the district's downward enrollment trend.
But Los Altos School District officials have long held that the recent drops in enrollment -- including the one this year -- reflect the short-term ebbs and flows of children entering and leaving the district. They argue the thousands of new housing units being built in the Mountain View portion of the district will more than make up for the decrease in the coming decade.
The district's enrollment was 4,243 students as of Oct. 3, with the possibility of small increases as the 2018-19 school year goes on, according to Superintendent Jeff Baier. This is down from 4,403 students last year, and adds up to a total of 432 fewer students in the district since the 2014-15 school year, according to state data.
The latest dip shows every school's enrollment got smaller this year, with the exception of Covington Elementary School. Total changes since 2014 show Loyola Elementary has lost the most students at 122, followed by Springer Elementary at 70, while Covington gained 32 students. The largest elementary schools currently are Almond, Santa Rita and Covington.
The district's enrollment is under scrutiny as school board members move forward with plans to purchase land and open a new school in Mountain View. Critics, the most vocal of whom are members of the Bullis Charter School community, contend that buying expensive real estate for a new school at the corner of Showers Drive and California Street makes little sense, given the decline in enrollment and the availability of land at existing campuses.
So why is the district talking about a new school when enrollment is trending down? Board members have long argued for the need to look 20 or 30 years into the future with regard to buying land and building schools, so fluctuations in enrollment today shouldn't distract from the long-term needs of the district tomorrow. More than 1,400 housing units are either approved or under construction in the San Antonio region of the city. According to past demographic reports, those units are expected to generate a little over 200 children. All three district's largest three elementary schools serve San Antonio students.
Baier said that the district's enrollment, including students attending Bullis Charter School, is back to where it was in the 1970s when the district had 12 campuses. Today the district has nine school sites, which he said puts a strain on the district's facilities.
"We know our community is growing and that student enrollment will increase with thousands of homes to be constructed over the next decade," Baier said in an email. "To resolve our capacity issues now and for decades to come, a 10th site is essential to protect our small school academic model and record of student achievement that is among the best in the state."
The district's demographic studies show a consistent pattern of over-predicting the number of children the district will have to educate. In 2015, the district was told there could be between 4,475 and 5,092 students in the district, and each subsequent year the predictions were notched lower and lower. The latest forecast in May projected there would be between 4,201 and 4,464 students, with today's student body coming in at the bottom end of the range.
Plans for future facilities have major implications for Bullis Charter School, which relies on the Los Altos School District for its facilities, but the charter school's board of directors showed little interest in the tenth school site. Several members of the charter school's board of directors questioned whether the expensive real estate purchase was necessary during a meeting last week, and wondered if the district was really headed toward higher enrollment.
Bullis board member Rich Ying said the high cost of building in the Bay Area is putting construction of many entitled projects on hold, and that the type of residential projects -- high cost one- and two-bedroom apartments -- aren't known for attracting families with children. Bullis board member Ann Waterman Roy pointed out that kids expected to live in the new housing could likely be absorbed in existing schools, roughly offsetting the recent enrollment declines.
The charter school, which is housed in portables split between Egan and Blach junior high schools, grew by hundreds of students while Los Altos School District enrollment shrank, but it's unclear how much Bullis will grow in future years. Charter school representatives say they intend to increase enrollment to 1,200 students in the next few years, but it's unknown what facilities the district will provide to house that growth.
It's unclear whether the charter school will be placed, in part or in full, on the new Mountain View campus. The Los Altos School District's board of trustees are scheduled to discuss the plans for the future tenth school site on Oct. 8, and could take action at that meeting.