Los Altos School District board members unanimously agreed Monday night to place Bullis Charter School's "overflow" students on a third campus -- Loyola Elementary School -- due to a big increase in enrollment for the 2019-20 school year.
All five trustees reluctantly cast their votes, expressing frustration and disappointment that the district was forced to find space for hundreds of additional Bullis students in such a short timeframe.
It was also a vote that left parents at the meeting visibly and audibly frustrated, many of whom insisted Bullis should remain at Blach and Egan junior high schools rather than encroach on the district's tight-knit neighborhood elementary schools.
But board members said their hands were tied, and arguing that state laws favoring charter schools and lack of cooperation from Bullis' leadership were to blame.
"Fundamentally, BCS does not want to cooperate, and that's the root of the problem," said board member Vladimir Ivanovic.
In November, Bullis Charter School submitted to the district a request for facilities under the state's Proposition 39 law. Los Altos School District is required to provide facilities to charter school students living within the district but opt to attend Bullis, and that those facilities must be "reasonably equivalent" to what they'd have if enrolled at an LASD school.
The request states Bullis will grow to from 838 in-district students to 1,058 in fall 2019, and the district is obligated to give the charter school a facilities offer by Feb. 1. That leaves little time to analyze each option and solicit public feedback, and barely enough time to get state-approved school facilities up and operational before school begins in August, said Assistant Superintendent Randy Kenyon.
"That's not a lot of time when you're talking about bringing in school buildings," Kenyon said.
The charter school's enrollment spurt is part of a multi-year plan to increase Bullis to 1,200 students. Maintaining the status quo -- essentially cramming extra portables on Egan and Blach -- would cost much more for the district, and may not be possible beyond the 2019-20 school year, Kenyon said.
"I'm not sure there's enough space at those two campuses to accommodate that kind of growth without severe overcrowding, and traffic would increase at two heavily impacted sites that are undergoing traffic issues," he said.
Kenyon recommended placing Bullis students at Loyola Elementary as a first option, followed by Springer Elementary, both of which have seen a decline in enrollment in recent years and have excess classroom space. Enrollment data last year shows Loyola dropped from 526 students in 2014-15 to 404 students in 2018-19.
Parents showed up in full force at the meeting, held in the Covington Elementary multipurpose room, with an outsized presence from parents with kids attending Loyola and Springer elementary schools. Speakers consistently praised the district's neighborhood school model and top-notch education at the schools, but said the board would be making a mistake by forcing any one school to carry the burden of housing Bullis.
Loyola parent Nina Hinrichs said the proposal would put hundreds of Bullis students on the campus, well-exceeding the school's peak enrollment and causing traffic problems in an area where safety is already a concern. It would be tough to handle the 220 extra Bullis students in 2019, but subsequent growth would be untenable, she said.
"It would be near impossible for us to handle the estimated 150 additional BCS students over the next five years," she said.
A Gardner Bullis parent said none of the elementary schools should have to share with the charter school, and said the stakes felt high for whichever school the board selected. Egan houses a large portion of Bullis, and the charter school's "preferred" option in the Proposition 39 request was the exclusive use of the campus and displacement of Egan students. The worry among some parents was that Bullis may take over an existing school in the district, and Petit urged the district to keep Bullis at Egan and Blach.
"Do whatever you can, because in the long term none of these schools want to be disappearing," she said.
Other parents felt the district staff's presentation was misguided, focusing too much on criteria like costs and available classroom space while failing to take a deep dive into traffic data and potential burdens on existing school programs. Tensions ran high as trustees neared the vote, when frustrated members of the public shouted their concerns to the board.
Board member Bryan Johnson said his hope was to avoid the contentious decision altogether. Both Bullis and the district have been working on a possible long-term agreement on facilities, including an enrollment cap for the charter school, but negotiations have been fruitless over the last 18 months, Johnson said. Absent any clarity on how big Bullis is going to get, Santa Rita, Loyola and Springer elementary schools seem like the only options that make sense, he said.
While some parents decried the process and criticized the district's leaders for pitting school communities against one another, Ivanovic said their hands are tied, and Bullis' rapid and unclear growth plans are to blame. He also pointed out that Proposition 39 largely guides the process, and that the law fails to take into account costs to the district or impacts on the school's community.
"You have to get over it. BCS is going to take space from us and it's going to be painful, and there's nothing we can do about it -- absolutely nothing we can do about it," Ivanovic said.
Board member Steve Taglio said some of the speakers' suggestions, including spreading Bullis out to several school sites instead of consolidating the school, are actually illegal under state law, and that putting charter school kids at a third school is already pushing it. And while bike accidents and traffic safety are of top concern for elementary schools, he said the highest number of collisions are already happening at the junior high schools, both of which are packed with existing charter school students.
"The reality is trying to cram more into Blach and Egan even for the short term ... is really not viable for what we're doing."
Johnson said a longer-term solution could involve reconfiguring Egan and Blach to make more space for Bullis to grow, but that simply can't happen in time for this year's Proposition 39 process, which requires a final offer by April 1. Taglio said it's also possible for the preliminary offer to change and for Loyola to be spared, and tried to assure the crowd that a better option may reveal itself in the coming months. But with three days to go before the state-mandated deadline, Loyola seemed like the right choice.
"As much as I feel the pain from the Loyola community and it doesn't feel great, it does make the most sense for the next year," he said.
Roughly one-third of Bullis' 1,058 enrolled students for next year live in the southern area of the district's boundaries, where Loyola resides. Because the charter school accepts students from throughout the district, which includes portions of Mountain View and other neighboring cities, the expectation is that most of the students will be driven to school, raising concerns about traffic.
While conceptual and almost guaranteed to change, district officials say the portable buildings on the western half of the campus abutting the blacktop space would be the best place to put the charter school. Loyola's existing uses for the buildings would then be shifted to the eastern end of the campus, consolidating Bullis and Loyola into two separate spots. Parents urged the board to remember that those buildings include important school services, including the school's library, STEM lab and before- and after-school care, and that they are not expendable.
Largely absent from the meeting was Bullis Charter School. None of the 27 people who spoke to the board spoke on behalf the charter school or identified themselves as charter school parents. Bullis officials had scheduled a special board meeting on the same night, at the same time, for a single item on school accountability and a closed-session item on anticipated litigation.