The Mountain View Whisman School District is asking voters to approve a $259 million bond aimed at fixing old school facilities and preparing for a surge of new students caused by rapid housing growth in Mountain View.
The measure, unanimously approved by the school board Thursday, will appear on the March 2020 presidential primary ballot. Though the school district would reserve broad discretion on how to spend the money, the priorities laid out at the Nov. 21 meeting made clear that more classroom space is needed at schools that are expected to grow by as many as 220 students.
The bond would cost property owners $30 per $100,000 of assessed value, and needs to win 55% of the vote to pass.
For years, district officials have raised alarm bells about Mountain View's rapid residential growth and the strain it will put on schools that have neither the space nor the money to support an influx of families with children. Large swaths of the city with little or no housing, including the North Bayshore and East Whisman areas, were recently rezoned to allow up to 15,000 new housing units.
The bond measure would instead focus on a less obvious issue: Dozens of smaller residential projects that are farther along and could start impacting schools in just a few short years. The latest count shows a cumulative 6,638 housing units in the pipeline, with 1,929 already under construction and 2,854 given the go-ahead by the Mountain View City Council, according to city staff.
A Nov. 5 analysis by demographers found that, once built, these units are going to add an estimated 580 elementary school students and 309 middle school students to Mountain View Whisman, primarily at its campuses located north of El Camino Real. Theuerkauf faces a 66% increase in students from 332 today to 552, according to the report, an additional 181 students at Vargas Elementary and 120 more students at Landels Elementary.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said some schools can handle the growth -- Theuerkauf is big enough to realistically house a total of 672 students. Landels, on the other hand, is already close to capacity before enrollment jumps by an estimated 27%. The recommended fix, he said, is going to be new two-story classroom and administrative building that will cost more than $30 million.
"This is by far the most expensive growth adjustment that has to happen," Rudolph said.
The cheaper option, which the board could consider at a later date, would be to redraw attendance boundaries to shift students from Landels to Castro Elementary School, which is already dealing with space constraints of its own. Doing so would likely mean adding portable classrooms to the campus or moving the preschool program at Castro to another site.
The school district would also prioritize $103 million in projects across all district campuses aimed at improving safety and boosting energy efficiency. For safety, the district is seeking to build what it's calling "perimeter controls," including fences, gates and lighting along walkways, playgrounds and parking lots. Solar power, better windows and improved heating and air conditioning are among the efficiency projects that would be added to every school.
The resolution officially putting the measure on the ballot, however, was more open-ended, including a wall of text listing everything from broken concrete and carpet replacement to new parking lots, welding shops and upgraded kitchens as permissible uses of bond funds. Resident Gary Wesley said board members should pare down the list and more clearly show how the money will be spent, arguing it goes against the spirit of state law. Under California's Proposition 39, school districts only need 55% of the vote to pass a bond measure if they provide a specific list of projects.
"There are some things you should identify in this measure as mandatory so that any board that comes along has to actually do those things," Wesley said. "But if you go with this, it's a relatively blank check and it will be opposed and you will run the risk of losing."
Former board member Steve Nelson also spoke in favor of more rigid spending priorities baked into the language of the resolution.
Rudolph said the school district's Facilities Master Plan, which was reviewed for the first time by the board at the same Nov. 21 meeting, lists $777 million in potential school facility upgrades and clearly delineates top-priority projects that could be financed through the upcoming bond measure. He suggested that board members take formal action to approve the prioritized list, which he said would take a supermajority of the board to retract. This would would give a sense of assurance to voters, Rudolph said.
Funding for schools has risen to the fore as a major concern as residential projects and new and planned zoning changes are poised to increase the city's housing stock by as many as 20,000 units, or about a 75% increase to the city's current housing, according to city staff. Estimates vary on how much it would cost school districts to buy the land and build the school facilities needed for the thousands of students generated by the growth, but it could reach as high as $1.2 billion.
Who gets stuck with the bill has been an ongoing debate that has at times frustrated district administrators and school board members. On the books, the city has policies that say developers in North Bayshore and East Whisman must help schools house additional students, but the lack of clarity in terms of a dollar amount or land dedication has been a major stumbling block. A recent study by the city indicated that housing projects simply won't get build if the burden of school fees is raised too high.
The upcoming bond measure is not going to give developers in North Bayshore or East Whisman a free pass. The bond would be used for the Mountain View Whisman School District's "immediate facilities needs," and will not be sufficient for the more significant long-term growth, district spokeswoman Shelly Hausman told the Voice in an email.
"As plans for residential developments are finalized, (the district), the city and developers need an agreed-upon consistent school strategy; one that would provide for student growth without all the burden falling on the district," Hausman said.
In addition to long-term plans to build one or even two additional elementary schools, district officials are also considering a massive overhaul of the Crittenden and Graham middle school campuses to significantly increase their capacity. Doing so would require two-story classrooms and relocating district functions offsite, which would cost an estimated $176.3 million at Crittenden and $145.3 million at Graham -- more than the entirety of the bond on the March ballot.
The trajectory of residential growth in the district, which is unevenly distributed and will have a more profound impact on schools north of Central Expressway, also means the district may need to consider revising its attendance boundaries again, Rudolph said. Although the last round of boundary changes took three years of contentious debate and only took effect in August, Rudolph said the district is going to need to find a more streamlined way of responding to demographic shifts.
"We do not need to have a three-year ramp-up to change the boundaries," he said. "It really should happen ... within one calendar year to the next."
The full bond measure resolution can be read here. The resolution was amended at the meeting to correct multiple typos and change the dollar amount of the bond from $256 million to $259 million.