The Mountain View Whisman School District is looking to completely revamp Monta Loma Park following a controversial decision to fence off public access during school hours, which prompted significant backlash from nearby residents.
The 4-1 decision by the school board Thursday night charts a new course for the school campus, with high hopes for meeting the security needs of the campus as well as the demand for green space from the surrounding community. School officials say they're earmarking anywhere from $8 million to $9 million for the campus reconfiguration.
The school district has been planning since 2019 to construct fences around school campuses across Mountain View as a safety measure, aimed at keeping out trespassers and potentially averting a school shooting. Though the proposal was baked into the $259 million Measure T bond, critics say they felt blindsided by the decision to fence off schools and adjacent park space.
Some communities, particularly Monta Loma, have aggressively pushed back on the proposal, arguing that there must be all-day access to one of the few green spaces left in the area. Some felt the fences amounted to security theater, and would do little to deter safety threats.
The school board hit the brakes on the plans in November last year to solicit more feedback from residents, including a "working group" just for Monta Loma. The board ultimately decided this month that bridging the divide can only be accomplished through a full redesign of the park in partnership with the city of Mountain View.
Though the details are still to come, the park is expected to include both security measures and some public access to open space during the school day. Still shrouded in uncertainty is who will pay for the expensive changes, and under what terms the city will agree to pitch in. School board members said they would be reluctant to make any agreement that cedes ownership of the land to the city.
"I'm a little nervous about this money too, but I think this is the right decision at this point in time," said board member Ellen Wheeler.
The Monta Loma campus has long been a hub for recreation, serving as the unofficial "town square" for the neighborhood, according to district officials. It's where residents host picnics, birthday parties and ice cream socials, and it's home to both soccer and baseball games. The pedestrian path that snakes along the contours of the park runs adjacent to a playground that's heavily used by young children.
At the same time, it's still an elementary school that needs to be secure. Rebecca Westover, the district's chief business officer, said Monta Loma had to deal with intruders 111 times over the course of seven weeks this year, suggesting that the open-access feel to the campus can be a significant problem for students and staff. In some cases the incidents included off-leash dogs and members of the public walking near classrooms.
"While many of us enjoy the open-campus feel, the reality is our staff members regularly have to approach people on campus who are not authorized to be here," Westover said. "We have had dog bites and bike thefts. Parents and staff members have also shared their concerns about potential violent events."
The school board voted Thursday to hire an architect, to the tune of $382,200 to $702,000 using Measure T money, to draw up a project that would fit the needs of the school district and the city at-large, with only a vague sense for how much it would cost to reconfigure the site. Previous estimates found that playground modernization, outdoor learning space, fences and other upgrades could cost a grand total of $11.1 million.
While the architect is expected to design the park based on community feedback, the district has since disbanded the Monta Loma working group, raising eyebrows about how the public will get to weigh in. Monta Loma resident and former school board member Bill Lambert told trustees on June 3 that he and others have "misgivings" about abruptly ending the group's work without a guarantee that the concerns of the nearby community would be addressed.
Resident Tim Mackenzie suggested that the school district did not run these working group meetings with an open mind, particularly when the facilitator was the architect tasked with designing the fences, and that getting rid of the group felt like a strange decision.
"Disbanding of the working group and the ability for the community to participate doesn't really bode well," he said. "I'm really baffled by this process."
Board member Chris Chiang, the lone dissenting vote, said he had serious concerns about the school district's plans. He said the school board needs to make clear that the city should pay for a big part of the construction costs if part of the campus is converted to all-day public access. The city has yet to make that commitment, meaning the project could soak up millions in Measure T money.
"I can't explain to myself how we would use a school bond to pay for a community benefit that's really a city benefit," Chiang said.
The Mountain View City Council has yet to weigh in on the redesign, and city officials are still working with the school district to better understand the details of the new park, said Lenka Wright, the city's chief communications officer. It's expected to take several months to iron out the details and for the city to take concrete action.