In what is turning into the new normal, 2018 was a tumultuous year for Mountain View's local schools, with big developments on everything from school boundaries and teacher housing ideas to new schools and new leadership.
A beloved local park could have become workforce housing for teachers and staff; residents living near high schools faced having to contend with bright stadium lights; and half of Mountain View Whisman School District's principals headed for the door, either by choice or by force.
But perhaps the biggest news generator throughout the year was Bullis Charter School, which weighed heavily on plans for a future school that would transform the city's San Antonio neighborhood. And in just four months, officials at the charter school went from revealing its expansion plans to the public for the first time -- creating a second charter school in Mountain View Whisman -- to winning a grudging vote of approval from the district's board of trustees.
That critical board vote came on Dec. 20 -- Bullis Mountain View declined to push the date until after the holiday break -- but nobody in the room seemed particularly happy. The district's leadership thoroughly criticized the charter school organization and cast doubt on its stated goals to serve low-income children, launching what could prove to be a tense relationship.
LASD inches toward the finish line
In what seems to be the most expensive, complicated and prolonged strategy to build a new school in the county's history, the Los Altos School District made significant progress in 2018 on plans to build a campus along the edge of the San Antonio shopping center.
Los Altos School District officials have long acknowledged that enrollment growth in the district is coming from one specific area where the district's sprawling boundaries cross over the Los Altos border into Mountain View's San Antonio neighborhood. The area is rapidly evolving to include dense new residential developments and is expected to bring hundreds of new kids to the district.
The plan looked very different at the start of the year compared to today. District officials were prepared to use eminent domain to force the sale of land occupied by the former Safeway and Old Mill offices across the street from the shopping center, despite warnings from the property owners' legal team. At that time, there was an open question about whether the new school would even serve students in the area, or if the school board was planning to use the site to relocate Bullis Charter School out of Los Altos.
Since then, the district's leadership has sought to resolve both issues. In June, district officials announced they were switching gears and pursuing what has been dubbed "friendly condemnation" of 11.5 acres of land at the corner of Showers Drive and California Street, home to several businesses including the Kohl's department store. And after prolonged pressure, school board members declared it would be home to "an elementary or junior high school open to neighborhood students, or a choice or charter school with a preference for neighborhood students."
The decision was hardly predetermined. School board members were reluctant to say what kind of school would be placed in Mountain View, stressing a need for flexibility, and a majority of task force members convened by the district concluded in August that Bullis Charter School would be the best fit for the new site.
Largely absent from the debate over site usage -- or excluded, depending on who you talk to -- was Bullis Charter School itself. In October, the charter school's board of directors bristled at the idea of jamming a school that's expected to grow to 1,200 students into a fairly small campus in Mountain View, and questioned why the district was planning to buy expensive real estate in the first place when enrollment in the Los Altos district schools is on the decline.
Going into 2019, the expectation is that Los Altos School District will wrap up real estate negotiations and purchase the land for a new school from the property owner, Federal Realty, using money from the November 2014 Measure N bond. The time lapse between passing the bond and using the money now exceeds 1,500 days.
A new charter school
To core members of Bullis Charter School, plans to create a second campus in the mold of Bullis' flagship school in Los Altos have been in the works for several years. The idea was to shift gears, taking a model that works well in an affluent area and expanding it primarily to students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
To everyone else, it was a complete surprise when the news broke in September. The process moved at such breakneck speeds that the charter school won approval to open a campus in Mountain View Whisman before the year even drew to a close. The approval left district officials and some community members feeling steamrolled by the abbreviated public process, drawing ire and frustration that will likely color the relationship between Bullis and the district going forward.
On Aug. 30, word spread that Bullis was hosting an "information session" on plans to open a new school in Mountain View Whisman. Up until that point, the charter school had not formally announced plans to submit the school's founding document -- a charter petition -- to any specific district. The next day, promotional materials for the event posted on the Bullis Mountain View Facebook page had been taken down.
Mountain View Whisman School District's superintendent, Ayinde Rudolph, maintains that he was in the dark just like everyone else, finding out about the proposal in September. He encouraged charter school officials to slow down their plans to open a new charter school serving district students in fall 2019, but was unsuccessful.
School districts have few valid reasons to deny a charter petition under state law, meaning the grievances put forth by Rudolph and others in the community had little bearing over the school board's action last month. In a speech shortly before the vote, Rudolph made clear that his recommendation to approve the charter petition was anything but implicit support for the school, and that the district should hold the charter school's feet to the fire on all of its promises.
The first half of 2019 is sure to be full of difficult decisions and a back-and-forth on where to best house the charter school. Bullis Mountain View has requested classroom space and other facilities somewhere in the neighborhoods around Castro, Theuerkauf or Monta Loma elementary schools. The school district is legally obligated to provide "reasonably equivalent" facilities, language that is hotly debated and the subject of many lawsuits, both past and pending.
The Mountain View Whisman School District's leaders frequently found themselves the subject of criticism during hot-button issues in 2018 beginning just days after the start of the year. A district-commissioned report on workforce housing ideas concluded that the best shot for building rental homes for teachers was on "excess" land at Cooper Park.
From the outset, school board members appeared amenable to the idea. After all, it could have for-sale single family homes along the edges of the property to insulate the existing Waverly Park neighborhood, which could be sold as a means for financing three-story townhouses while appeasing the local residents.
But the residents were not appeased, and green signs saying "Save Cooper Park" can still be seen around town. Neighbors in the area sharply disputed that the district's property amounted to vacant, excess land, saying it had been used and enjoyed for decades as a neighborhood park. The other major complaint was about traffic and how a dense housing project could worsen the already congested Grant Road.
After dumping the idea, district administrators began negotiating a potential compromise and, nine months later, finally found it in a massive new residential development along West Middlefield Road. Under the proposal, which Mountain View City Council members backed in late October, the school district would pay $56 million for a long-term lease on 144 units of a 716-unit project already in the pipeline. Of those 144, almost all would be made available to district employees at subsidized rents.
With that deal came an agreement, in writing, that the school district would not use its Cooper Park land for housing, and that it would only be used for some "district purpose."
Another district decision that drew sharp criticism and huge crowds to school board meetings was the 5-0 vote by trustees in March to remove and reassign four principals, effectively booting the top leadership at nearly half of the district's schools. Shortly after, Crittenden Principal Angie Dillman announced her resignation, adding to the administrative churn.
While school board members unanimously stuck by their decision, they declined to give their reasons, citing the confidentiality of personnel matters. But with so little public information available to understand the school board's sudden and unexpected round of firings, a large group of parents rallied in support of some of the principals -- notably Graham Middle School Principal Kim Thompson and Landels Elementary School Principal Steve Chesley -- and demanded to know what criteria was used to say they were performing below expectations.
District officials claim it was based on metrics including personal performance, survey results and student academic performance, as well as a recommendation from a range of top administrators at the district office. But parents contend, based on the information available to the public, that the data and survey results don't show a clear reason for the board's decision.
One contentious issue that did get put to bed in 2018, at least for now, was completely redrawing attendance boundaries for Mountain View Whisman schools, the product of years of planning launched in 2015. School boundaries set to take effect in fall 2019 seek to fix overcrowding at the popular Bubb and Huff elementary schools -- albeit the newly drawn lines now threaten to pack Landels to the brim -- and create a zone for the Whisman neighborhood's new Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School.
The big question facing board members in 2018 was whether to allow so-called grandfathering, or allowing students to remain in schools where they're currently enrolled despite the changed attendance boundaries. Board members ultimately voted to allow fifth-grade students to finish at their school, while everyone else will be forced to move for the 2019-20 school year.
The new boundaries come with a completely revamped list of enrollment priorities that largely bar the free flow of students from one school to another. Up until now, children could attend school at any campus so long as there was space available, but that policy was largely voted away by trustees in June in favor of a "neighborhood school" model. Big questions still remain as to how many students will end up at each site and whether Bullis Mountain View will throw a wrench in the plans, leading to chronic under-enrollment at some district schools.
The Mountain View-Los Altos High School District also got a share of the controversy this year, despite keeping a low profile and steering clear of divisiveness. The school board considered and ultimately decided to move forward with plans that would bring stadium lights to the fields at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools.
District officials took up the issue at a school board meeting in August, which drew a sharply divided group of hundreds of parents, students and community members debating over installing the lights. Student athletes argued that sports events and practices were unfairly limited by short daylight hours and forced them to leave class for games too early and too often, while residents of the neighboring single-family homes worried late-night games would bring unwanted light, noise, traffic and general hooliganism to the area.
School board members took up the issue again in November -- also drawing a large crowd -- and unanimously agreed to start planning for field lights as well as create written rules for light and public address system usage that nearby residents would be willing to accept. Trustees went to great lengths to assuage the fears of residents by saying there was a long road ahead before stadium lights are installed, and that school board members could reverse course at any point and scuttle the project entirely.