Measure N watchdog suggests residential land for 10th school site

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A 10th school site could provide a new campus for Bullis Charter School, which currently shares land with Egan Junior High on West Portola Avenue in Los Altos, left, and Blach Intermediate School.

As the Los Altos School District continues to explore commercial Mountain View properties for housing a new school site, a member of the committee tasked with overseeing the purchase is questioning whether it makes more sense to target residential properties in Los Altos or Los Altos Hills instead.

In two open letters presented to the district board of trustees early this month, Measure N Bond Citizens Oversight Committee member John Swan offered three examples of residential properties priced or valued between $1 million and $3.5 million per acre, a comparatively paltry sum compared to the estimated $15 million-per-acre cost for commercial Mountain View land.

“If we try to look at this thing objectively and not emotionally, I think there’s some very good options,” the Los Altos Hills resident said in a June 7 interview with the Town Crier.

Swan described the more cost-effective alternatives: a 9-acre property on Woods Lane in Los Altos valued at between $19 million and $20 million; four Westwind Way parcels in Los Altos Hills amounting to approximately 8 acres and collectively valued at an estimated $30 million; and a 45-acre property on Elena Road in Los Altos Hills previously listed for approximately $50 million.

Of the three, Swan considers the Elena Road property most promising. He envisions 15 acres for a school site and the rest for dedicated open space to serve as a community park.

And, he said, there would still be money left to fund the deferred maintenance of other district schools.

“If we do a comparison, I’m willing to bet, if we’re objective in the analysis, that this will come out head and shoulders above any other option that’s out there,” Swan said.

LASD targets commercial sites

It’s been more than 30 months since voters passed the $150 million Measure N bond to improve the facilities of existing Los Altos School District schools as well as to establish a new campus for a district school or for Bullis Charter School, which shares sites with Egan Junior High and Blach Intermediate School.

A proposal last year to spend $39 million of the bond money to purchase 5150 El Camino Real, a 3.79-acre office complex in Los Altos, fell apart due to lack of community support. Critics of the plan – including the Bullis Charter Board of Directors – felt the property was too small, the cost too high, the traffic too troublesome and the site not optimally arranged.

Now the Los Altos School District Board of Trustees is said to be considering properties within Mountain View, but members are closed-lipped about the details and cite contract negotiations as the reason.

The topic came up briefly at last week’s Los Altos City Council meeting.

“They say they are negotiating, but that’s about all we get,” Mayor Mary Prochnow said in an update to fellow councilmembers. “They are talking about Mountain View pretty strongly because of the issue of crossing El Camino. It appeared that they are negotiating for something in Mountain View at this time.”

Swan said he recently met with and held a “constructive” one-on-one discussion with district Trustee Bryan Johnson about negotiating in good faith with Bullis Charter School. But Johnson, in a phone interview with the Town Crier, expressed some skepticism about the residential property proposal.

“At this point, I think we need to think about solutions where the process is clear rather than speculative,” he said.

Johnson pointed to the Pinewood-Winbigler Estate saga as a “cautionary tale.” The private school in 2004 purchased the estate, a 7-acre property on Campo Vista Lane in Los Altos Hills, with the intention of relocating its Upper Campus from its current location, a Fremont Road lot leased from the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Los Altos Hills residents opposed the idea for reasons ranging from concerns about increasing traffic to a preference for hosting a public school rather than a private one. Pinewood placed the property on the market for $15.5 million in January 2006.

“After several neighborhood meetings, it became very clear that there was no chance of getting a permit to build a high school there,” Pinewood curriculum coordinator Laura Blotter recalled. “We sold the property to the current owner.”

The board of trustees, in fact, has already run into opposition from Los Altos Hills residents who got wind of the district considering residential properties for a 10th school location, Johnson said. Within weeks, the board received letters from lawyers representing those properties’ neighbors.

Is a 10th site needed?

So far, Swan’s proposal is mostly a solo effort; he described his fellow committee members as “passive” on the subject. And though he’s pitched to individual Los Altos and Los Altos Hills councilmembers, he has not formally presented the idea to either city council, which would become involved if residential land in either town is rezoned for a school.

Speaking as individuals, both Los Altos Hills Mayor Gary Waldeck and Councilman John Radford expressed dismay about the district’s slow progress and said they could support a proposal like Swan’s.

“I totally, 100 percent support the fact that we should be pressuring LASD against buying Mountain View property,” Radford said. “It’s very expensive and makes no sense whatsoever.”

There’s also the possibility of reconfiguring the 110-plus acres the Los Altos School District already controls on its existing nine school sites to better accommodate the student body, both Swan and Radford said. In fact, the district’s own projections from a Feb. 13 financial update indicate declining enrollment over the next few years, with 5,304 total students at both district schools and Bullis Charter School during the 2017-2018 school year, 5,288 students in the 2018-2019 school year, 5,245 students in the 2019-2020 school year and 5,219 students in the 2020-2021 school year. It’s not until the 2021-2022 school year that enrollment is expected to rise, reaching 5,240 students before dropping again to 5,218 the following school year.

“Their enrollment growth numbers really make you question whether or not spending the bond money is even needed in today’s world,” Swan said.

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