Casas to LASD: Hands Off the Civic Center

Councilmember David Casas issued a strong statement in response to what he says is the school district's interest in exercising eminent domain to build another school.


Los Altos City Council member David Casas warned the Los Altos School District Board to back off thinking about taking civic center land through eminent domain for a tenth campus—although a board member said that's not the case.

Taking aim at two school board members sitting in the audience, Casas spoke sharply during Tuesday's City Council meeting, in relation to a discussion about a contemplated bond measure to build a new civic center, located on 18 acres of the city's land along North San Antonio Road. 

The acreage includes the former Hillview Elementary School, which is currently used by the city for a senior center and recreational and community uses. It is also called "Community Center." 

"It is not something to be spoken lightly of, when one jurisdiction talks about the taking of another jurisdiction's land for use that does not run in parallel with the city’s interests," Casas said.

"As a former elementary school board member, I find this appalling that this is being discussed in public, and is being brought forth amongst conversations that I’m a part of, that this is something that is even being contemplated."

Later he said, "I call upon our school board to unequivocally to state that they are not interested in any taking of the civic center land."

Reached by telephone in Southern California, LASD Board President Mark Goines said he was "puzzled" by Casas' comments.

During the public comment period at , at least one member of the public mentioned the possibility of the LASD using eminent domain to reclaim the former Hillview campus for a 10th campus.

Goines acknowleged that members of the public made suggestions to reclaim Hillview, and while the board itself affirmed its right to eminent domain, there has been no formal discussion of specific properties.

He also said the district spoke to city representatives about the center and whether the two jurisdictions could work together on a joint solution.

"And they said they don't want to talk about that. They basically said it's off the table," Goines said. “We specifically asked council members to talk to us about working together about the need to have a tenth school site ... We haven’t been talking about taking the land.”

In a subsequent email Goines said that, "(The) LASD would be pleased to work with the city of Los altos to jointly develop the city's property for the benefit of our community."

Leading into his statement, Casas pointed out Los Altos School Board trustees Doug Smith and Tamara Logan, who were sitting in the audience.

Casas suggested the school board has to make it clear it is not interested in eminent domain of what is called the Community Center land, before the two jurisdictions can work together.

"If it is by mistake that this has been brought forth, I think a clear and unequivocable assertion by the school board stating that the school board is not interested in taking of city land to find a tenth school site, then I believe that opens up a lot of opportunities for partnerships that have been a long-standing tradition," he said.

"It’s unfortunate, and I believe I speak for the City Council, that this is something that would not be well received by this body," said Casas of any move toward eminent domain.

Mayor Val Carpenter, however, was more conciliatory. 

Before Casas spoke, mentioned that she had spoken to school district officials. She elaborated in an email to Patch. 

"About two months ago I became aware that school districts also have the right of eminent domain," wrote Carpenter said in an email Wednesday morning about perusing LASD Voices' Facebook Page. "Shortly after that, I met with LASD Trustee Doug Smith and Bullis Charter School Board member John Phelps at their request, and in our wide-ranging discussion, eminent domain was mentioned in conjunction with the Los Altos Community Center as well as other City and private land."

She said she sent the board a letter on March 26, encouraging them to look at land north of El Camino Real for a campus site, where higher density housing is located. As a near-term solution, she also urged them to investigate setting up a pilot program of school buses from the high-density developments located north of El Camino Real, to relieve the congestion and safety issues at the  schools and that the City Council could have a discussion about financial support for such a pilot.

The presentation on the polling Tuesdays had just shown that voters were not likely to vote for a civic center upgrade during these hard economic times. Carpenter  suggested three ways of moving forward, including working with LASD to help them identify a 10th school site, "ideally north of El Camino Real in Mountain View or Palo Alto." 

David Casas April 11, 2012 at 05:35 PM
Hillview Community Center is an integral City asset that is fully occupied by organizations providing invaluable services to the City. The ambiguity, of whether eminent domain is being considered, needs to be addressed with absolute clarity. Rather than LASD Board Members expressing their personal opinions about the topic, I encourage the Board to take a formal public position dismissing eminent domain as it relates to City property. Once the topic of eminent domain is addressed, I believe the City Council would be more than happy to assist LASD on items of mutual interest.
David Cortright April 11, 2012 at 06:29 PM
Mr. Casas should back off his strident tone. He sounds like he either doesn't know or doesn't care about the significant strife in the community for lack of a 10th school site. Hillview once was a school, so of course it makes sense to talk about potentially turning it back into a school. By immediately taking this option off of the table, he is showing an intransigence that was formerly the exclusive domain of the Bullis Charter School board. I certainly hope he is a lone voice and not speaking for the entire city council, despite the fact that he sad he believes he is.
Laura Schmidt April 11, 2012 at 07:40 PM
It sounds to me as if the city council is a bit out of touch with community issues. From what I've heard discussed, the land in question could be serve as both a civic center AND a 10th school site. For example, community activities could take place in school buildings after school is out. Considering the fact that there is very little public support for a new civic center on its own, it seems that it might be beneficial for the city council to begin discussions with LASD. Los Altans may be more willing to vote for something that could provide multiple benefits to their families.
Joan J. Strong April 11, 2012 at 10:51 PM
[edited/updated] Before I weigh in on the two projects (which I understand from another story that the civic center bond has been killed for this year?), I would like to say that I'm very encouraged to hear that BCS and LASD were "in talks" about a new campus. That is a GREAT sign. Personally I'd be willing to pay for both bonds in our (what down economy?). Schools are the #1 driver of real estate values so it makes sense that the CC would at least prioritize working with LASD and BCS and getting their messages straight. Saying, "go away" to a major constituent sounds tone-deaf to me. As a parent in a school potentially impacted by the BCS mess (and there are only three schools in LASD which are not) I certainly prioritize the the school campus issue way, way above the new city hall--and I think that priority makes sound financial sense as well. (If you want to show me a study that points to a newer city hall driving real estate values more than SCHOOLS, I'm all ears). But to be clear, I can't see why we can't do both in due time...
David Casas April 11, 2012 at 11:34 PM
@David ... Last month, I was directed to represent Council's position on Hillview. The message was conveyed to LASD, at that time, and my report back to Council was captured in the minutes of our March 13th meeting. To be clear, there was no departure of content in the message conveyed to LASD, and the message on Tuesday evening. @Laura ... I agree that there may be opportunities for collaboration. However, eminent domain is a hostile action that does not lend itself to meaningful discourse. As for the Council, I can clearly state that it is not out of touch with the challenges facing LASD. @Joan ... I'm also encouraged that BCS & LASD are meeting. As for priorities, the City & LASD have both parallel and competing needs. A positive finding of the recent poll, is that our community holds public education in very high regard. Once LASD formally dismisses eminent domain, I believe Council would again be inclined to assist them in helping to solve their problem. The ball is in their court.
David Cortright April 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM
@David you are representing the city with such an aggressive and uncompromising view that shows absolutely no empathy for the parents and students who have been mired in this battle for facilities with BCS for nearly a decade. Given that stance, I for one hope LASD takes and equally aggressive and uncompromising stance and uses eminent domain to reclaim Hillview for public education. Bullies are not tolerated in our schools, nor should they be on our public boards.
Joan J. Strong April 12, 2012 at 01:44 AM
@DavidCa -- Why are the city's needs "competing" with LASD's? If the voters and financial logic dictates that schools are an integral part--and arguably the most important part--of our town, shouldn't that be the CC's priority too in the rare instances when it has a role to play? I "get" the intimidation factor of LASD threatening ID. I'm sure it's very annoying. As I have never ran for public office and have zero experience in politics (except for the corporate variety), I have no real standing to give out political advice... but I'm going to anyhow :-) : however ANNOYING this move might be, the right move is for the CC to move past this and engage LASD. I think you need to finesse this situation much more than you appear to be... LASD is following the wishes of its constituents, and you should walk a mile in their shoes since you both, after all, were elected by the same voters...
David Casas April 12, 2012 at 03:28 AM
@DavidCo ... while your passion is admirable, your angst is misplaced. As a long time advocate for LASD, I strived to keep this issue from negatively impacting LASD. Last month, I conveyed the message in private with LASD Staff. Even as late as last week, I sent an email expressing concern about LASD's approach towards Hillview. Sometimes you need to shine a bright light on a concern, in order to have it properly addressed. As for my approach, I speak directly and I don't mince word. One of the benefits of making a clear statement, is that it leaves little room for interpretation. At this point, I hope LASD has heard our message. @Joan ... regarding competing, I was referring to City services at Hillview vs. a typical school site (e.g. senior services; weekday recreation programs; etc.). As it relates to the topic at hand, finesse has been tried. The next LASD Board meeting is set for April 23rd. My hope is that LASD ultimately chooses a collaborative path (e.g. working in partnership with the City), rather than a confrontational one (e.g. eminent domain). I worry that the latter choice would not serve the District well.
David Cortright April 12, 2012 at 03:38 AM
@DavidCa I have no angst, merely disappointment. You should empathize. You must be disappointed that the poll results indicate that the voters of Los Altos will not support your pet upgrade project. But I think it's petty of you to displace your frustration onto LASD. From my standpoint, they were merely kicking around ideas. And rather than try to help out and do some collaborative idea-kicking, you took a strong "us vs. them" stance. I certainly approve of your directness. It has clearly shown everyone that you are not a team player. But I'm happy to be proven wrong. Why don't *you* extend the olive branch here? Why don't *you* propose some ways in which the LACC can help LASD and BCS resolve this issue? Why don't you take a proactive, positive tack? That would be a quite refreshing change.
Joan J. Strong April 12, 2012 at 04:40 AM
@DavidCa -- Being the well-wired local politician that you are, I'd invite you to take a look at the relative interest levels online between the things you are protecting versus that which you may potentially be offending. To whit, where, pray tell, are the legions of defenders here of the senior center and the other rec programs? I'm sure they are around, but as somebody who spends WAY too much time online following local politics (there, I said it) I'd personally estimate the ratio at about 10:1 in favor of public school zealots. The reality behind this has to do with there being a lot more at stake. Circling your wagons on this is bad politics, DavidCa.... Just saying...
Hahadc's April 12, 2012 at 06:02 AM
Hahadc's April 12, 2012 at 06:02 AM
Jim Fenton April 12, 2012 at 06:04 AM
I was taken aback by Councilmember Casas's comments because, although this came at the tail end of an agenda item about public support for a bond measure for the Community Center, the question of possible eminent domain by LASD seems rather far from the agenda. While a unidirectional statement doesn't constitute a discussion under the Brown Act, it also wasn't clear whether the statement was on behalf of the Council (and I don't recall any Council action in that regard) or as an individual. Perhaps a better venue for an individual statement would have been as an op-ed piece or on the Patch blog.
Hahadc's April 12, 2012 at 06:05 AM
But couldn't 10 of the zealots all be one person? Just wondering.
David Casas April 12, 2012 at 07:31 AM
@Joan ... thanks for sharing your insight. I appreciate it. @Jim ... the message was on behalf of Council.
Ron Haley April 13, 2012 at 12:23 AM
What goes around comes around. David Casas was one of the LASD board members that made that fateful decision to close the Bullis School, which resulted in the formation of BCS! Wouldn't it be "poetic justice" if the current board took away his community center to meet the needs of BCS :) There will possibly be two new LASD board members after the November elections, so if a LASD bond happens to pass, who knows who will be making the decision on what site to seize.
David Cortright April 13, 2012 at 12:32 AM
According to Norma Schroder over on Los Altos Politico: "One public jurisdiction can’t use eminent domain on another. LASD cannot impose eminent domain on the City without taking it to the Supreme Court!" http://losaltospolitico.com/2012/04/los-altos-civic-center-65m-bond-effort-val-says-thumbs-down/ It would seem that Mr. Casas is a lot of noise about an impossible hypothetical. But if anyone has legal precedent where one public entity seized another public entity's property via eminent domain, I'd love to see it. Please post the link here!
Joan J. Strong April 13, 2012 at 02:42 AM
Wow, interesting history. Was that before, or after the Spanish-American war? I suspect Mr. Casas is not batsh*t insane enough to hold on to a nine-year-old grudge, unlike some other people we know...
David Cortright April 13, 2012 at 12:43 PM
My apologies; I was wrong. Matt Raschke posted the following to Facebook: California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1240.610 says "Any person authorized to acquire property for a particular use by eminent domain may exercise the power of eminent domain to acquire for that use property appropriated to public use if the use for which the property is sought to be taken is a more necessary public use than the use to which the property is appropriated... Where property has been appropriated to public use by any person other than the state, the use thereof by the state for the same use or any other public use is presumed to be a more necessary use than the use to which such property has already been appropriated." So it is possible, but not optimal.
David Cortright April 13, 2012 at 12:46 PM
Regardless, it'd be so better if the two sides worked together for a site that was mutually beneficial, as Jennifer Carlstrom so elegantly suggested: "LASD has been kicking around the idea of using the current Hillview site which will be torn down if the City Council follows through on its plan. Why not preserve that space, lease it to the school district and allow them to renovate at it their own cost (from a potentially more successful bond measure with a lower passing threshold based on the Godbe research). The funds that flow from the school district to the city with the lease could then be used to complete the majority of the Community Center plans as currently outlined, without a second higher threshold bond needed..." I would very much hope Mr. Casas and the rest of the City Council are open to such ideas, even if LASD chooses to retain the option of eminent domain.
Ron Haley April 15, 2012 at 12:26 AM
Taking the community center for another LASD school isn't necessary. There are plenty of solutions to accommodating BCS. The surrounding districts, Cupertino, Mountain Vew and Palo Alto all run K-5 and 6-8 programs. Implementing such a program would move approximately 14% of the currently elementary students to Egan and Black, where there is plenty of space. Such a move would free up space for two BCS campuses. LASD could then put a much smaller bond on the ballot to provide additional buildings at Egan and Blach. Perhaps 1/3 of what they are currently proposing. Such a solution minimizes the expense to the community, leaves the community center for Los Altos, and satisfies LASD's obligations to BCS!
David Cortright April 15, 2012 at 12:40 AM
Actually, Ron, the current facilities satisfies LASD's obligations to BCS. If BCS wants to spend several more years and several more hundreds of thousands of dollars to find that out from the courts, I suppose that is their right. Seems to me like a massive waste of money that could otherwise be used education our children. The fact that LASD is even considering floating a bond to build BCS a school is quite generous. It is well beyond reasonably equivalent. If LASD invests in building out non-portables for BCS, I can practically guarantee it will not not be on any of the existing sites.
Joan J. Strong April 15, 2012 at 02:40 AM
The downside risks of under-investing in education far, far outweigh the risks of over-investing. The campus bond is a no-brainer from a risk and ROI perspective. The risk of OVERinvesting is: * The effective overall tax rates of our average citizens here going up by about .2% in exchange for no upside. The risk of UNDERinvesting is: * Our school tests scores and reputations falling well below that of Mountain View/Cupertino/Sunnyvale, thus leaving would-be home buyers very little reason to suffer the 40% premium we now command for our houses here. In other words, visualize a 20% haircut on real estate prices (which have thus far dodged the nationwide downturn and are currently defying gravity with respect to comparative lack of damage as compared to surrounding communities). These days people want a clear ROI and this bond has it in spades. It's also the right thing to do for our children and for education in general here in Los Altos/Hills. Let's pass the bond, end the war with BCS, equip our schools for the coming decades prosperity here and show the leadership that the richest hub of Silicon Valley ought to be showing when it comes to public education.
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