Board members expect to vote later this month on a long-term agreement to cede Egan's facilities to Bullis Charter School, which has grown to more than 900 students in recent years and is seeking to increase its enrollment to 1,200 students.
The charter school is currently housed in portable classrooms on portions of the Egan and Blach Intermediate School campuses, and school officials have long desired a single, permanent site. In exchange for Egan, Bullis officials would ditch long-term growth plans and agree to an enrollment cap of 1,111 students until 2030.
Egan wouldn't technically be closed in the process, and would be relocated to a new school site planned in the San Antonio shopping center area of Mountain View. The move would happen no sooner than 2023, according to the agreement.
Calling it the best of many bad options, school board members said that the deal would end years of expensive litigation and annual fights over facilities, and bring some much-needed surety that Bullis won't be allowed to grow unchecked. But for parents attending the April 8 board meeting, it seemed like an immensely unpopular giveaway and a big loss in the long-running battle against the charter school.
"I have not met two people who are in support of moving Egan," said John Woolfrey, a Santa Rita parent. "Tonight, I still haven't met two people who support moving Egan."
Parents made the case throughout the evening that they chose to move to Los Altos and pay a fortune for the real estate because of the strong neighborhood schools embedded within the community of mostly single-family homes. To push the campus north into Mountain View not only betrays that model, but it also poses serious safety concerns, they claimed.
"I want my kids to bike to school," said Warren Yang, a district parent. "I don't want them riding across El Camino, I don't want them riding down San Antonio Road during rush hour — it's too scary."
"There's a good chance that we'll start looking at private school, God forbid, maybe even BCS," he said.
About one-fifth of Egan's students come from Mountain View, and it's likely that the remaining 80 percent of families will be driving their children north from Los Altos into the traffic-heavy shopping center for pickup and drop-off, said parent Robert Burdick. Bullis Charter School draws families from all over the district and most parents drive their kids to the school, he said, so a couple of extra traffic stops north won't make much of a difference to them.
Other parents felt a long-term commitment and a big concession to the charter school would be a mistake at a time when California may be on the cusp of curbing the power of charter schools. They argued Gov. Gavin Newsom and state Superintendent Tony Thurmond are more willing to curtail the ability of charter schools to open and grow, and the state Legislature is currently considering several bills — including AB 1505 and AB 1506 — with the same aim.
With so much in flux, the district could be making a grave error by inking the 10-year agreement, said Bill Bassett, a parent and longtime district resident. The tide has turned, he said, and the playing field will change.
"How are you going to feel if you sign a 10-year agreement and 10 months from now the rules change and it's on your side?" he said.
Closest to the sentiment in the room was board member Vladimir Ivanovic, who described it as a bad deal where Bullis gets most of what it wants rather than everything it wants. He said he is also convinced that charter school officials can circumvent the enrollment cap with relative ease by splitting Bullis into two charter schools and reconstituting enrollment between the two.
And even if Bullis outright violates the agreement, what can the district really do about it, Ivanovic asked. The district can't exactly evict 1,111 students with no alternative place to go.
"We don't have any place to move them," he said. "What are we going to do if we decide to terminate the agreement? It is a remedy that has no teeth."
Board member Bryan Johnson, one of two board members who helped craft the agreement with the charter school through a mediator, said he was still uncommitted and didn't know how he planned to vote.
"I haven't decided yet whether I think we should go through with this," he said. "What I haven't found yet is an option that I'm sure will do less damage to the school district in the short term and the long term."
While Johnson said he heard the message loud and clear — families do consider Egan a neighborhood school and that relocation would amount to a closure — he worried that Bullis' growth in the upcoming years amounts to a serious threat that needs to be addressed. He pointed out that Bullis, by growing to about 1,100 students in 2019, is expected to enroll about 20 percent of public school kids, and that the district may be on a path where Bullis itself becomes a "shadow" district sharing district school sites throughout Los Altos.
"I feel like there is an inflection point here about whether BCS is going to be a charter school or a charter school district — a school or a school district," he said. "As the (Bullis) board president has said repeatedly, they should be able to enroll anyone they want."
Johnson said he struggles to think of a way to give Bullis its own single school site without displacing another school. The new campus being considered in Mountain View made sense last year when Bullis had an enrollment cap of 900 students, but at 1,100 students, it simply doesn't fit.
Board president Jessica Speiser and board member Shali Sirkay both argued that whatever decision is made, there needs to be some kind of enrollment cap on Bullis. Sirkay added that it's a risky move to wait for legislation that has yet to be crafted, let alone passed by the state Legislature and approved by the governor, and that Bullis would be allowed to grow in the interim.
"Capping BCS' enrollment is a top priority," she said.
The significant opposition to the 10-year agreement Monday evening was hardly a surprise. For hours that morning, several dozen parents and children lined W. Portola Avenue outside of Egan with signs protesting the proposal. Children from nearby elementary schools who would be directly affected participated, and event organizers estimate as many as 150 people showed up during the peak of the four-hour walkout.
Amber MacDonald, a parent and one of the organizers, said she and others were surprised to find out that Egan was on the chopping block as part of the negotiations with Bullis Charter School. After all, when Bullis requested Egan in its entirety in November last year, the district was swift to call the request unreasonable. An online petition calling to "Save Egan" collected more than 5,000 signatures in the days that followed.
Similarly, a district task force had considered the idea of relocating Egan to the proposed school site in Mountain View in order to make room for Bullis, but the idea was swiftly rejected by a majority of the task force members. Trustees later criticized the task force for even considering it as an option.
"Six months later, we're at the worst case scenario in a lot of peoples' heads," MacDonald said. "Five thousand signatures clearly didn't mean anything."
For MacDonald, the San Antonio shopping center in Mountain View just doesn't seem like a viable home for a junior high school, with the high-density housing and commercial buildings, traffic snarls and a constant churn of people in and out of the area. She believes many families bought homes in Los Altos expecting to go to the school next door and may choose private school or the charter school instead.
"I don't feel safe sending my kids there, and that's not what I envisioned when I moved to Los Altos," she said.
Peipei Yu, a parent who also attended the walkout, said she felt the 10-year agreement was an admission by the district that it simply couldn't keep funding another round of lawsuits with the charter school over facilities. She said she understands the desire to end the fighting and sign the agreement in order to stop paying millions of dollars in legal fees, but it feels like the wrong reason to give up a school like Egan, particularly when the charter school lacks the same level of accountability.
"I don't think we should be making decisions about our children based on who has bigger coffers to purchase attorneys," Yu said. "I've got to trust the (district) board, but I'm unhappy because on the other side, the Bullis Charter School board isn't publicly elected. They aren't even elected by their families."
Turning her sights to the larger debate over charter school power, Yu said she is fighting for reform at the state level, which she said is the source of the problem and the reason why the 10-year agreement simply hits pause on Bullis' growth and demands for school facilities.
"The only reason I'm doing this is because I don't want any other children to go through this," she said. "I think we absolutely have to have charter school reform, otherwise this is going to keep happening."
More than a dozen public meetings are scheduled to solicit feedback on the 10-year agreement. The meeting information can be found online at tinyurl.com/Eganmeetings.
This story contains 1671 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.