Bumps in the road

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Photo by Monique Schoenfeld, Town Crier

Los Altos School District struggles with logistical challenges of renovation

Child-care debate

The Covington School site is presently home to various organizations and businesses. The district offices and maintenance yard are at Covington, as well as the city-run pool. The district also leases portions of the site to seven organizations, including four child-care providers.

These tenants will have to vacate their sites when construction begins. Facing a loss of $400,000-$500,000 in annual lease income, the district considered putting three preschool tenants at the Egan, Covington and Blach Junior High School sites.

"Our Citizen's Advisory Committee and Budget Review Committee had been concerned about the loss of lease revenue when we reopen Covington and asked us to try to retain as much of the lease income as possible," said Superintendent Marge Gratiot.

The school district has reserved space to relocate the preschools at renovated Covington and Egan school sites.

"Preschool child care is not our primary mission, but certainly is a need in the community, and is also a permitted use of our sites according to zoning codes," Gratiot said. "However, it is not our responsibility, and we should only do it if it adds to rather than subtracts from the education we can offer the children for whom we are responsible."

In recent months, many residents expressed concern about private businesses on school property. Reasons for this center largely on the issue of traffic congestion on school property.

"The school charter is to educate, not to baby-sit," said Alex Gleu, a Los Altos resident who attended last Wednesday's meeting for the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), an act that requires the school district to examine the environmental impact of projects. The meeting provided an opportunity for residents to voice their concerns regarding environmental issues associated with the project.

However, many have also expressed opinions in favor of keeping the preschools on school property.

"If the school sites aren't good places for the day care, where else is there?" asked Carol Yoshida Waln, a Los Altos resident who attended the CEQA meeting and who uses child-care services for her own children.

A related issue is the sentiments of some residents that many families need two incomes to live in Los Altos, requiring the use of professional child care.

"The community needs to support child care so people can live in this area," said Anna Weldon, a Covington neighbor.

Child-care providers who currently use the Covington site have responded to such concerns with their belief that they provide a crucial service to members of the Los Altos community.

Approximately 80 percent of Los Altos children who attend child care centers use facilities at Covington, according to John McAlister, who runs Pebbles and Stepping Stones. The preschools have been located at Covington for nearly 20 years.

Because space in Los Altos is scarce, McAlister fears that he will not be able to keep his business in Los Altos.

If the district does not provide space for the preschools, "four businesses will no longer exist, 40 people will lose their jobs, 200 families will not have care for their kids, 250 kids will have their lives disrupted," he said.

Mary Ashley, the director of Early Horizons preschool, another Covington tenant, also stressed the needs of families.

"We're here because we're doing what's best for Los Altos families," she said. "We're not fighting for our rights, we're fighting for their rights."

Ashley has also considered the district's duty to encourage education at the pre-kindergarten level.

"The school district has an obligation to provide for children who will be school district children in a few years," Ashley said.

According to Ashley, research indicates that the greatest mental development occurs in children before they reach age 5. "If we don't catch them in those first five years, they are less likely to be prepared for kindergarten," she said.

Gratiot has addressed this concern, stating that "a good quality preschool education is an important prerequisite for student success in school."

However, in a closed session on Jan. 10, board members recommended putting on hold negotiations with child care providers in response to the differing viewpoints. The board decided to wait until last Monday's board meeting, where the issue will be open to public discussion, to make a final decision. The results of that meeting were unavailable due to the Town Crier's Monday press deadline.

"It appeared to the board that this issue was getting a lot bigger than we thought," said Board President Victor Reid. "It appears that this particular issue needs to be discussd by a number of people."

Board members worried that the controversy surrounding the preschool issue would slow the construction process.

"Thus far, all of the site plans have included space for day care and preschool providers," said board Vice President Jay Thomas. "Unfortunately, as we have proceeded with the plans, we have received no support from the city. We are being asked to obtain use permits for the day care facilities, do traffic studies and then face city hearings to determine if there is a need for day care facilities in Los Altos. All of these requirements have and are taking up too much time and effort in the planning of the renovations and opening of Covington.

"If we continue to fight city hall on this issue, our construction plans will be delayed. Thus, the school district is facing a tough question - delay construction and fight for day care or just proceed with the construction."

McAlister was surprised by the board's recommendation. He felt that as recently as a few months ago, the board "was 5-0 in favor of child care anytime it came up," he said.

Three new members joined the board last month.

"Some of the new board members want to hear what the public has to say, and fully air everything," Reid said.

One new member, David Casas, said "my concern is that we have multiple agendas we need to set aside to make sure that our timeline proceeds expeditiously."

"I don't think I would categorize the new board as having different priorities from the old board," Gratiot said. "The discussion of issues around our facilities seem to have become more politicized and more strident in the last two months, and the new board is responding to those changes."

In comparison, the Cupertino Unified School District runs preschool programs only on closed school sites, said spokeswoman Beverly Armstrong.

Maintenance yard issue

Another controversial issue generating protests is the possible location of the district maintenance yard.

The maintenance yard is currently located at Covington. In the district's initial construction plans, the maintenance yard was relocated along the Rosita Avenue border, and the existing maintenance yard was converted into the district offices.

The maintenance yard is used for parking district trucks, delivery of school supplies, a dumpster area and storage. According to Dave McNulty, the director of facilities construction for the district, the presence of the yard on school property does not interfere with school activities.

However, residents on Rosita Avenue protested against the possibility of increased noise and traffic along the street.

"The Rosita neighbors are not at all happy with the possibility of more traffic in their neighborhood," McNulty said.

One such neighbor, Eric Lutkin, outlined his concerns at the CEQA meeting, which include the potential for "increased noise, debris and exhaust fumes for the neighborhood," as well as his feeling that the maintenance yard is inappropriate for a residential neighborhood and an elementary school campus.

He has compiled a petition asking the district to "remove the district maintenance facility from the existing Covington School property." As of last week, he had gathered 46 signatures.

In response to such complaints, the district asked the city of Los Altos for space at the city's Municipal Service Area. The city offered the district 15,000 square feet of its property. However, the proposed maintenance yard will require 23,000 square feet. Because the city would not be able to provide enough space, the school district turned down the offer.

McNulty will recommend to the board moving the proposed site for the maintenance yard approximately 100 feet away from the Rosita border.

Other issues

In November 1998, Los Altos School District supporters had cause for optimism after voters approved Measure H, the $94.7 million construction bond, by an overwhelming 75.4 percent majority. But that optimism faces challenges from controversies generated by the district's attempts to implement its renovation plans.

School officials drafted the measure to fund renovations of the district's eight existing schools and to renovate and reopen Covington school as the district's ninth school. Construction is expected to take six years.

After lengthy discussions, the school board approved new school boundaries, incorporating Covington, to redistribute attendance areas.

While the district's timeline and goals have not changed, logistical details have aroused concern and frustration among residents affected by district decisions.

The initial phase involves Egan Intermediate School and Covington Elementary School.

Both schools will welcome students to newly-renovated facilities in the fall of 2001.

The proposed design plans for Covington and Egan will be sent to the state architect's office for approval within the next week. Included in these plans is the design for the camp school to be built at Egan.

Students from the district's schools will attend two camp schools, located at Blach and Egan, while their own campuses undergo construction. Only one school would be located at the site at each time.

The proposed camp school at Egan will be located near the corner of San Antonio Road and Portola Avenue, separated from Egan's main campus by the school's track. It will contain most of the facilities that the present elementary schools contain, such as play areas, libraries and administrative offices. Because the schools will be used by both elementary and junior high students, the plans have been designed to accommodate both groups.

The camp school will be accessed by Portola Avenue, where it will have its own parking lot of 75 to 95 spaces. Egan's parking lot is also accessed off Portola Avenue.

Residents have raised the concern that the location of the school may result in parents parking along Portola.

"Some people have proposed we put the parking lot off San Antonio, which we're opposed to," McNulty said.

Relocating the parking lot would force the district to cut down redwood trees and put in a new left-turn lane on San Antonio to direct traffic into the parking lot, the cost for which the school district would be responsible.

Some parents of students who will attend the camp schools have raised the issue whether the move to the camp schools will disrupt the students' education.

"It is incumbent upon us (as a school board) to make the transition as seamless as possible," Casas said.

The district maintains that the camp schools were designed with the educational priorities in mind.

"I would really like for people to understand that the camp school design was chosen with a consideration of what's best for the students," McNulty said. "There are a lot of advantages to getting kids away from the noise and mess of construction."

McNulty also believes that the camp schools "make sense financially, because we build interim housing only once." The camp schools may even lower the cost of construction; contractors may lower their bid prices because it will be easier for them to work without the disruptions that would occur if the schools on the construction sites were still in session.

"We want to begin asking for bids for construction companies in March or April, and award contracts for construction late in April," McNulty said.

Construction would then begin on the camp school in May, moving the Egan campus to the camp school after the school year ends.

The district plans to work on two schools per year through 2004, finishing with Springer in 2005, barring any further delay or modifications to the plan.

"Although I expected some bumps in the road, I was not anticipating the unpleasant outcomes of implementing the bond measure," Gratiot said. "In particular, the discussions about boundaries, traffic and child care have sometimes been personal and petty - and even rude, with little consideration given to the educational reasons behind the initial proposals.

"Having shiny, new, up-to-date facilities for the children of our community should be a cause for celebration and a focus for positive collaboration," she said. "I keep trying to tell myself that is the light at the end of the tunnel."

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