School closure looms near Los Altos School District board faced with shutting down one school

Casey Farrand said walking to school keeps her focused in class.

At 8 a.m. each day, the fourth-grader heads out from her Deerfield Drive home in Los Altos Hills with her mother, younger brother Caleb and the family's chocolate Labrador retriever, Carolina.

The four of them amble through a mile of pathways passing by creeks and through horse pastures speckled with mustard plants. They leash the dog and look both ways only once during the 15-minute journey, when crossing Robleda Road, before finally arriving at Bullis-Purissima Elementary School.

"I think we wouldn't do as well in school if we drove," the 10-year-old said. "When we walk, I'm more awake and can focus better."

But by Feb. 10 -- the date the Los Altos School Board of Trustees has set for deciding which six elementary schools stay open for the 2003-04 school year and which campus will close -- Casey may need to find other ways of focusing in school. Among the district's six elementary schools, Bullis and Loyola Elementary in Los Altos are at the bottom of the renovation schedule and at the top of the list for closure due to poor facilities.

Playground space is hard to come by at Bullis; brown portable classrooms cover much of the schoolyard. Still, Casey and many of her classmates have tapped into that little something called imagination -- creating a magical city of tunnels and paths within the berry bushes behind the school. There in their "fort," the children climb on branches and barter sticks, rocks and leaves.

Casey and her classmates may not have the open fields and large blacktop of Covington Elementary, but Casey said larger play areas are no substitute for childhood hideaways and early morning walks to the only public school in Los Altos Hills.

"Here, we can create," Casey said. "We can use our imagination."

On the other side of the district, third-graders Lauren McAllister and Mikaela Volpicelli play under a big blue banner visible from the entire school yard at Loyola Elementary.

It reads: "When You Play the Loyola Way Include Everyone."

McAllister, who lives less than five minutes from school on Quinn Hill Road in Los Altos, said her parents have been forthright with her about the potential closure of her school, which has been explored by the school board.

"I really like this school and want to stay here next year. If there's no choice about it closing down, we'll go to Covington," McAllister said. "We wouldn't be happy, but we would be OK."

McAllister said the message on the big blue banner reminds students that during recess they have to play together and respect each other.

"It means include everyone, and don't push anybody or say bad words to other people," she said.

It's a valuable lesson this 8-year-old could pass on to bitterly divided district board members and parents.

Impending decision

The countdown to Feb. 10 has begun.

Central to this decision will be the redrawing of attendance boundaries and relocation of some students and families within the district, no matter what decision is made, said Superintendent Marge Gratiot. School officials recommended that no elementary school should be smaller than 375 students nor larger than 530 students. Gratiot estimated approximately 3,000 students for the 2004 school year would be divided among six schools rather than the current seven. The big questions are who will be moving and where?

In order to answer those questions, the board has been looking at establishing criteria on which to base its decision.

The board is looking at four major areas of concern: educational impacts, which include school size, cost effectiveness, adequate facilities, teaching conditions and students needs; district demographics, including where the students are, what their distance is from school and major thoroughfares crossed; asset utilization, which includes school capacities and permanent versus portable classrooms, construction, cost of renovation, potential rental income and community considerations such as neighborhoods served; and the role of school sites in community activities.

The criteria was prioritized and applied to four sample scenarios at the Jan. 21 special public session held at Egan Junior High School, prior to the Town Crier press deadline. Look for an update in our Jan. 29 issue.

The board will consider the following scenarios: close Covington and adjust sizes of existing schools to meet the criteria; close Bullis and move the entire Bullis community to Covington and adjust sizes to meet criteria; close Loyola and adjust sizes to meet criteria; close Springer and adjust sizes to meet criteria.

The board has scheduled a second public hearing, 7:30 p.m., Jan. 27, at the Blach Multiuse Room, 1120 Covington Road. The purpose of the public session is to receive comment, refine criteria and allow time for board discussion.

How we got here

District enrollment is a big piece of the picture. The last study done on the district's enrollment was in 1998 by the Long Range Facilities Planning Committee. The district's demographer concluded K-6 enrollment in the district was expected to grow to 3,400 students by 2008.

Enrollment projections were off for three major reasons, according to Gratiot: decreased state funding so the district can't afford to operate seven elementary schools; the prediction that the district will become a Basic Aid district during the 2003-04 school year which would mean the district could no longer accept interdistrict transfers, resulting in 250 fewer students; and growth in the district slowing between now and 2008, resulting in 180 fewer students than were in the 1998 projection.

"Back in the 1998 election, when we pased the bond measure, our projected enrollment was 3,400 students. We thought we would need a seventh school," said Randy Kenyon, assistant superintendent of business services. "We based our projections on past trends, but now we only have 3,000 students and less need for a seventh school."

In November, the Los Altos School District voters passed Measure H, which increased the parcel tax by $333 to $597 per parcel per year, within school district boundaries begining July 1.

"When the board decided to go for a parcel tax increase in April we were still thinking we would need a seventh school," Kenyon said. "We realized we might not be able to afford a seventh school when we were doing projections for the board on the amount of increase to ask for. We knew we couldn't open a seventh school when we decided on the parcel tax amount."

The approximately $4 million generated will be used to maintain reduced class size, support small neighborhood schools, hire and retain quality teachers, fund school libraries, provide student educational materials, retain music, language and computer classes in the junior high schools and balance the district's eduational program, according to the district. The passage of Measure H also saved the district from having to close more than one school.

Since November the economy started going south, the district had a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in health care costs and Governor Davis cut $35 billion from education across the state, Kenyon said.

"We might not be able to restore class size and support services back to the level it was during the 2001-02 school year like we had hoped with passing the parcel tax," Kenyon added.

In November, the district's Citizen's Advisory Committee for Finance recommended that it would not be fiscally responsible to open a seventh school.

Covington School

The "seventh school," is the Covington School site which was renovated during the 2001-02 school year with the idea that it would be used as a seventh elementary school.

Even if all six schools stayed in their current campuses, attendance boundaries would shift in order to balance the number of students at each school, Gratiot said.

Bullis-Purissima School has the fewest students with 270 and Springer School seems to be bursting at the seams with 635.

Covington is currently used as a camp school to house Springer School.

Springer Principal Bob Celeste has enjoyed his time at Covington.

"As an educational learning environment I don't think you can top it," Celeste said. "It's a school for the future with all of the technology on site, the state-of-the-art library and media center, art center and multiuse room. Whichever school comes down the pike has an amazing facility."

Who will get to call Covington their permanent home -- if any school at all -- has yet to be determined.

"I am nuetral about each school, including Covington, as to whether it has or has not been renovated," said Duane Roberts, board president. "My approach is to evaluate based on having sufficient funds to renovate all of the schools to the extent planned in the Revised Master Plan."

"I want to continue to use Covington as a permanent school site," Board member Margot Harrigan said. "The district's community has already committed significant money and effort to make this a superior school site; therefore, the children in the district should benefit, not unnamed potential renters."

The board agreed that rental income from the site not being used as a school will be considered as a "tie breaker" rather than a deciding criterion.

Longer commute times, no longer being able to walk to school, disruption to students and family life are just some of the concerns being voiced by parents in the district and considered by board members as they decide.

Teachers have some concerns as well. The Los Altos Teacher's Association has asked the board to consider the working conditions.

"The working conditions in some of our older schools are apalling," said LATA president Amanda Terry. "The teachers in the district would like to see the working conditions made more equitable by renovating all of the schools to the same standard."

What's next

Parents and community members made it apparent that no neighborhood would like to see their neighborhood school closed.

"One thing that concerns me is the amount of contention between schools and sometimes within a school is something I find deeply troubling," parent Katie Matice said. "The district has done amazing things with the unity of the community. My concern is that we are fractured. My school is fractured and I know we are not the only one. I hope that the end game can bring us back together, we are so much more powerful standing together shoulder to shoulder rather than face to face in a confrontational mode."

After the public study session Jan. 27, the board has scheduled the following meetings: 7 p.m., Feb. 3, Blach Camp School, Room 9, 1120 Covington Road. The purpose of this special board meeting is to finalize criteria for a decision; 7 p.m., Feb. 10, Blach Camp School, Room 9, 1120 Covington Road. The purpose of this meeting is to potentially make a "site-use decision and planning for implementation."

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