City, LASD weigh options for school sites

Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Members of the Los Altos City Council and the Los Altos School District met last week to discuss potential school sites, including Rosita Park.

Officials from the city of Los Altos and the Los Altos School District met last week to discuss potential solutions for the district’s burgeoning enrollment and a permanent site for Bullis Charter School. They also pledged to keep talking.

An ad hoc committee comprising district Trustees Doug Smith and Pablo Luther, Mayor Megan Satterlee and Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins convened June 19 to publicly discuss potential school sites on city-owned land. The meeting took place after the council sent the district a letter in April inviting trustees to “engage in dialogue” on two potential sites – Rosita Park/Covington School and McKenzie Park/Municipal Service Center.

The council’s letter encouraged the district to take a broad approach in solving its growth problem, including making more efficient use of current space, pursuing share-used agreements and purchasing or leasing land/buildings from private or public entities.

Making matters more pressing is the possibility of the district placing a bond measure on the November ballot – the ballot language must be approved by Aug. 8 – and the city’s ongoing efforts to update Hillview Community Center, which may require voter-approved bond funds next year.

“We want to understand what the community is willing to support,” Smith said.

Projected growth

According to Smith, district enrollment totaled 3,900 students 10 years ago, today stands at 5,100 and is projected to continue to grow.

“We have a definite need for some additional facilities,” he said. “We’re hoping to partner with the city to identify a solution.”

Key to any solution, Bruins said, should be a commitment to “healing the community,” a reference to the district’s decadelong battle with Bullis Charter School over facilities.

“Your primary concern is healing the community. … That’s one of our concerns,” Luther said in response to Bruins. “Healing the community is actually an overarching concern, but the real problem is that we are running out of space for our kids.”

“It’s a capacity issue – plain and simple,” Smith added. “Adding more capacity addresses the pain point that everybody’s concerned about.”

Hillview generates sparks

In their search for space for additional school sites, the district culled criteria from constituent groups and developed a list that includes size, traffic, accessibility, cost, location, condition, feasibility and timing.

The city, meanwhile, after filtering sites by size, location and accessibility – with an eye to “creative solutions,” Bruins said – put the Rosita and McKenzie options on the table, but not Hillview Community Center.

Satterlee quickly rebuffed Luther’s effort to discuss Hillview as a potential school site, noting that the city had previously denied consideration after the district refused to waive its eminent-domain rights.

“I’ve been singing the same tune for two years – that is the advice of legal counsel,” Satterlee told the trustees. “I would just like to express my disappointment, though, because I think that you’re very well aware that Hillview is too small to serve the needs and it’s too constrained and the impact to the city and the programs it’s able to provide are too great. You guys and the board are intelligent enough to figure that out for yourselves and to put to rest the idea that Hillview should be explored.”

Smith, however, countered that many local residents find Hillview a tenable option, and that an open and honest dialogue that objectively reviews the site’s feasibility should be considered, especially as the district seeks buy-in for a bond. He offered the possibility of taking eminent domain off the table for a year to advance the discussion. Satterlee responded that she would have to take any such offer back to the council.

“The disappointment – not on my personal part but maybe collectively from our constituents – may be mutual, given the fact that in order to strike something off, one should look at it with an open mind and see if there are creative, collaborative solutions to multiuse properties,” Luther said.

Creative solutions

Both sides noted that the Rosita and McKenzie sites pose logistical problems. Still, Bruins stressed the importance of finding creative solutions.

The 21.7-acre Rosita site comprises the park, the Covington School campus and the district offices. The committee acknowledged that if the district wants the entire Rosita property, the city would need to relocate its three tennis courts and playground structure and establish more effective ingress and egress points. Satterlee also cited the challenge of establishing a shared-use arrangement for the field and the impact on the neighborhood.

The 6.8-acre McKenzie Park/Municipal Service Center site is smaller and with limited access, some committee members noted, in addition to traffic and other issues related to nearby Loyola Corners.

“The Rosita site probably makes more sense to me, (based on) raw space,” Smith said.

The bottom line, according to Satterlee, is that any deal the city might strike with the district should result in no net loss of land.

“We have insufficient parkland for our residents,” she said. “It would be our intent to retain ownership – we’re not going to sell land.”

Smith and Luther said they intend to discuss the options and consider possible reconfigurations for the Rosita site with the remaining members of the district board.

The committee is scheduled to reconvene 7:15 p.m. Tuesday. A meeting place was not finalized by the Town Crier’s press deadline.

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