A reopening for Bullis?: Redistricting threat prompts move toward settlement for LAH school

It's been a volatile three years since the closing of Bullis-Purissima Elementary School in Los Altos Hills.

But the climate seems to be improving in recent weeks. The one-month "negotiate or we redistrict" deadline imposed by Los Altos Hills councilmembers in March forced parties from the town, the charter school and the affected school districts to the table to work out a compromise solution. The outcome of these negotiations, presented at two town meetings last week, has given some people cause for hope - so much so that town councilmembers last week extended their deadline for pursuing redistricting to June 8.

What's proposed?

The latest settlement proposal, revealed at two Los Altos Hills public meetings last week, includes these conditions, as reported by Los Altos Hills Councilman Craig Jones:

• A public school reopening at the Bullis-Purissima site on Fremont Road, including a signed agreement for a public school operating there for a minimum of 20 years.

• Allocation of the site to Bullis Charter School, which would have space for up to 380 students and an option to grow to 480. Los Altos School District would initially be allocated space for up to 100 students at the site, but would not operate a K-6 program. The charter school would occupy the Bullis site by December 2007.

• Town children currently attending Palo Alto Unified School District schools could enroll in the charter school. The Palo Alto district would then pay $5,000 per student to the charter school for those opting for Bullis.

• The Los Altos School District would renovate the Bullis campus, with $1 million in town support.

The district, which has already refinanced its 1998 facilities bond, plans to seek a second bond from voters next year. Los Altos Hills would build and maintain new playing fields.

"We're looking for a signed agreement, something that has at bare minimum a generation of permanence," Jones said.

Los Altos School District Trustee Mark Goines offered a cautious tone to the points Jones laid out for a Los Altos Hills-based public education.

"It's just a framework, not all points have been approved by the school board yet. As a package, it's a starting point for analysis," said Goines after the meeting.

Town officials want to petition the Santa Clara County Board of Education, which approved the charter school, to seek a waiver with the state that would allow geographic preference.

Charter schools typically do not give preference to local students but offer open enrollment.

Councilmembers approved the delay until June 8 to pursue redistricting on a 3-2 vote to allow Palo Alto and Los Altos school boards an opportunity at their meetings to approve the negotiated proposals.

Jones, Mayor Breene Kerr and Councilman Michael O'Malley voted in favor. Councilmen Dean Warshawsky and Jean Mordo voted against the delay.

Against redistricting

Many Los Altos Hills residents with students going to schools in the Los Altos and Palo Alto districts are opposed to the town's redistricting bid and see the town council as supporting a minority of the population. Hills' residents and school board representatives opposed to redistricting organized an April 24 public meeting at the Bullis site. Calls to end divisiveness and for further negotiations in favor of a shared Bullis-Purissima site dominated the evening.

"It is time that (the town council) listen to residents like us who are in favor of a compromise. We are not against the Bullis Charter School, but we vehemently oppose the redistricting effort," said Larry Russell, co-leader with Mindy Ryan of the Citizens Against Redistricting group.

Representatives from the Los Altos, Palo Alto Unified and Mountain View-Los Altos Union High school districts gave brief presentations.

Los Altos School District Superintendent Tim Justus was optimistic that a shared community school could work at the Bullis campus, given extensive improvements. He said he was confident that the district would work with county agencies to come up with a permanent solution.

Jones and Kerr said they were optimistic that both sides of the debate could reach a settlement.

Goines gave a presentation on the history of the redistricting debate, citing current figures on its potential impact on each district.

"It was a balanced meeting. I feel the shared arrangement … will work and it's an appropriate way to tie up matters," he said.

School boards at the affected districts are expected to vote on the proposals prior to the town's June 8 meeting.

School district options

Los Altos School District officials have been discussing long-term options for their district, Justus said. The board defined alternatives, separate from redistricting pressure. The options include:

• The district could open a seventh elementary school on the Bullis site. This would require locating a permanent setting for the charter school. In this case, the costs could double because there would be two new buildings to construct.

• The district could remodel and renovate the Bullis site to be shared between the charter school and district programs. This option fulfills the needs of both the charter school and the district.

• The district could renovate the Bullis site for the charter school only.

Justus said he has asked the district's Citizen Advisory Committee for Finance to look at these options from a financial standpoint, concentrating on future growth.

"These are the types of discussions we will be having at our future board meetings," he said.

Justus said the district needs to keep enrollment growth in mind when dealing with options for the Bullis site. He said that if the site goes to the charter school, the district would have to look into resetting the capacity at its schools and redrawing some attendance lines.

Justus said the renovation plans haven't been completed, but he expects to receive $10 million from refinancing that could fund the reconstruction of the Bullis site. He said the district plans to renovate and modernize the already existing buildings on the site and add a new multipurpose room and library. Officials would add some of the portable classrooms the charter school is currently occupying Egan Intermediate School.

Justus said that if the negotiations committee can come to a decision and the district has the money in hand, then the construction could start when school is over. If it can begin then, the district expects to have the site ready by the winter break of the 2007-2008 school year.

What's at stake?

The Los Altos Hills council's bid to pursue redistricting has officials in Palo Alto and Los Altos school districts concerned, although schools observers outside the town see an uphill battle. The effort could take years.

If Los Altos Hills officials could form their own school district, the neighboring school districts would stand to lose revenue along with students.

Officials estimated that the Los Altos School District would lose up to $3.5 million and the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, $3.7 million. Under current enrollment, Los Altos would lose 350 students, Palo Alto, 429, and Mountain View-Los Altos, 179.

"We are being held hostage here and I do resent that," said Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School board member David Williams at the district's April 24 board meeting.

Marlin Miller, spokesman for the charter school, said, "We pay the highest parcel tax in the state and we still don't have a neighborhood school."

How we got here

The latest proposals mark three years of effort by a contingent of town residents to reclaim the Bullis campus. It began on the heels of Los Altos School District voters passing a parcel tax increase and renovating Covington to reopen. Subsequent funding cuts and low enrollment at Bullis made the closing of Bullis-Purissima necessary, according to the district.

Former trustee Duane Roberts said that the district had planned to add Covington as a seventh, elementary school because "It was the dot-com era, everything was exploding."

The district relied on inflated enrollment forecasts, which, coupled with unanticipated construction costs, forced the district board to revamp and reprioritize renovation plans. Bullis, with the lowest enrollment and greatest renovation needs, emerged as the campus targeted for closure.

Some Los Altos Hills residents who supported the parcel tax increase felt betrayed by the district's decision and its subsequent lack of support for Bullis Charter School. Parents at Bullis-Purissima rallied to open a charter school on the closed elementary school's campus but were denied a charter and the location from the district. The county board of education overturned the Los Altos decision and approved the charter in September 2003.

The Los Altos School District, obliged to provide classroom space, offered the portables at Egan Camp School - classrooms used to house students from other schools during the district's renovations. The charter has continued operated there since.

Charter supporters pursued a lawsuit against the district in 2004, claiming that the Egan portables are not the "fair and equivalent housing" required for charters by state law.

Los Altos Hills also sued, claiming the school district needed to acquire a conditional-use permit from the town before renting out the Bullis-Purissima campus to private preschools, as it did after closing the school. The town dropped the suit in fall 2005.

Charter supporters said that if the ongoing negotiations were successful, they would drop the lawsuit against the district.

Eliza Ridgeway, Megan Ma and Traci Newell contributed to this story.

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