The Mountain View City Council and two local school boards sat down for a rare joint meeting on Monday, Sept. 18, as the three entities try to hash out a long-term agreement to divvy up tens of millions of dollars in annual tax revenue from the Shoreline area.
The meeting came at a time of tension between the trio of public agencies, which in some cases has spilled into public view, particularly in recent weeks.
Elected officials and senior staff from the Mountain View Whisman School District, Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District and city of Mountain View met in a conference room at Michael's at Shoreline Restaurant on Monday evening for a meeting that was led by an outside facilitator. There were more than 30 people watching in person and the meeting was live-streamed online, and over a dozen people spoke during public comment, sharing varying perspectives on how agencies should spend tax money from the Shoreline area.
The three parties have sought for years to reach a deal on how to share funding from the Shoreline Regional Park Community, a special tax district created in 1969 that covers much of the city north of Highway 101. Property tax revenue from within the Shoreline Community's boundaries isn't distributed according to the typical system, but is instead set aside for the maintenance and improvement of that area.
Since 2005, the city – which serves as a steward of Shoreline tax funds – has agreed to share some of the money with the school districts, though less than what they would receive if the tax district didn't exist.
The agencies have been trying to negotiate a long-term successor agreement, but didn't manage it before the existing deal expired on June 30. Instead, the three parties came to a short-term agreement for the current year, giving them more time to keep hashing out a long-term fix.
Tensions have flared between the city and Mountain View Whisman, with the two parties at odds over a six-decade agreement for the joint use of school fields. Superintendent Ayindé Rudolph said that a city staff recommendation to end the agreement was "out of the blue," while council member Lucas Ramirez said the city was getting "deeply mixed signals" and a "total lack of clarity" from the district.
The council ultimately voted to move ahead with ending the agreement, but to give the school district one final chance to accept the city's terms. The school board is expected to discuss it at a Thursday, Sept. 21, meeting.
Much of Monday's meeting was focused on reviewing norms, ground rules and core values for the Shoreline negotiations, as well as going over the elected officials' inspirations for public service and positive attributes they observed in the other agencies.
Facilitator Kelly Bowers, a consultant with Renee Public Management Group and former Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District superintendent, told the participants that the meeting wasn't a negotiation or town hall, but that it was an opportunity for elected officials to hear from one another. At the same time, she said that they couldn't ignore that some trust had been broken and that rebuilding it was important.
"The elephant in the room is that things have not gone like we wanted and that we have heavy-duty, real negotiations (ahead)," Bowers said.
There were moments during the meeting where the specifics of the disputes between the parties came through more explicitly. City council member Lucas Ramirez brought up multiple concerns with the actions of the Mountain View Whisman School District, including a web page that features a flier laying out the district's perspective on the Shoreline tax district.
Ramirez said that it appeared designed to "create alarm and consternation and confusion," and that a way to demonstrate good faith would be to take it down.
"It is very difficult to negotiate with an agency that insists on antagonizing its supposed partners," Ramirez said.
Mountain View Whisman trustee Devon Conley said that she is concerned about issuing ultimatums to take things down.
"If we're going to enter this openly, it's about expressing where the questions are, where the concerns are, having a frank discussion about it – but I don't know that ultimatums are actually very productive," Conley said.
Fellow Mountain View Whisman school board member Laura Blakely said, in response to Ramirez, that to some extent, accuracy is in the eyes of the beholder and that what the city feels is inaccurate, the district believes is accurate.
"I think talking about the perceptions and parsing it, so that we can come to a shared understanding and perspective is super, super helpful," Blakely said. "I'm hopeful that we can get there – to a place where we can do that."
Breakdowns in communication were a common theme throughout the meeting, with Mayor Allison Hicks pointing to instances when the city wasn't told ahead of time about items on Mountain View Whisman's agenda, and when the city felt that inaccurate information was being presented.
Conley said that there were also times when the school district felt the city was presenting inaccurate information, and that it would be helpful to have ground rules on how the agencies communicate with one another.
Council member Emily Ann Ramos pushed for the school board to take more votes or straw polls to give clear direction to staff, so that the view of the body was clear.
Ramirez said that one challenging thing to address is that he believes there is "a lot more harmony" among the elected officials than among their respective staffs.
"On the elected side, I have great optimism that we can work together with facilitation and collaboration," Ramirez said. "I remain skeptical that when we start to transition the bulk of the work to the staff that there will be the same ability to address the gap."
Bowers said that this can start to be addressed with elected officials modeling behavior, followed by expectations and accountability. Rebuilding trust is possible, but starts small, Bowers said.
"If we stick to being professional, reducing emotion around it, being honest and ethical – then we can move forward," Bowers said.
Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District board president Phil Faillace said that it will be important to avoid placing blame and looking for opportunities to collaborate.
"We're not going to look to pin the tail on some donkey," Faillace said. "We are here to solve a problem and I actually think we are here to balance interests among many problems."