Updated Sunday, Mar. 17 at 10 p.m. with comments from Mountain View City Councilman Michael Kasperzak.
In a rare letter underscoring how recent growth is affecting both communities, the Los Altos City Council is asking the Mountain View City Council to consider zoning land north of El Camino Real for a new public school.
Los Altos Mayor Jarrett Fishpaw cited the efforts of both cities to build higher-density housing along the El Camino Real transit corridor—and that it was having a corresponding effect of increasing the school population.
The letter had been spearheaded and initially drafted by Councilmember Val Carpenter, who had spent the past year while she was mayor going to school board meetings and studying the issue.
“We respectfully request you consider identifying and zoning 5 to 10 acres of land north of El Camino Real for public school use,” wrote Mayor Jarrett Fishpaw in the letter dated March 14, “so that more Mountain View families can enjoy the benefits of a neighborhood elementary school.”
As many real estate agents know, but some residents may not, the Los Altos School District’s boundaries have historically covered that part of Mountain View.
Currently, 20 percent of Mountain View students, or about 1,200, live within the Los Altos School District and attend three of its elementary schools, as well as its junior high schools, according to school board President Doug Smith, who presented demographic information to the Mountain View City Council on Jan. 22. That population comprises 26 percent of LASD’s student body, and, according to the district, is growing as the two cities strive to fulfill state-mandated housing planning for population growth.
All three schools, however, are on the Los Altos side of heavily traveled El Camino Real.
"Both the percentage and absolute number of LASD students living in Mountain View have been growing steadily for nearly 20 years," Fishpaw wrote, and the district needed to provide at least one additional elementary school to serve Mountain View students. Providing a school north of El Camino Real would greatly improve school children’s safety if they didn’t have to cross that major artery, he wrote.
With a Mountain View council study session scheduled March 19 on "visioning" for the San Antonio center area, the Los Altos mayor expressed concern that rezoning for higher density and mixed uses increases properties' value, as well as "making it challenging for school districts such as LASD to acquire land for neighborhood schools in built-out communities."
He and the council, which voted unanimously to send the letter, urged Mountain View to "work collaboratively with LASD has expressed a willingness to explore creative options for school sites, including mixed-use facilities that can benefit a broad cross-section of residents, and we urge you to work collaboratively with them."
The letter also made clear that the request was distinct from the need for a campus for the Bullis Charter School, which the council believes would be better served closer to its preferred chartered attendance area.
Fishpaw concluded by asking for a joint meeting of the two city councils to discuss issues of mutual interest that have been arising on the transit, housing and emergency communication fronts.
Mountain View City Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga, who prefaced her remarks by saying she had not seen the Los Altos City Council’s letter, said, "I think it is a good idea for cities to communicate with schools. We serve many of the same residents."
But the issue is complex, she said.
To downzone property on an existing landowner gives her pause. "To ask us to downzone land, I understand, would open us up to lawsuits," she wrote in an email, suggesting obtaining a more definitive opinion from the city attorney.
“Nothing stops the LASD now from obtaining land on their own if they want to purchase land,” Abe-Koga wrote.
She noted that the enrollment of Mountain View kids in LASD has been focused on development and growth in the San Antonio area north of El Camino Real, yet she wondered if LASD has crunched the figures for kids living near El Monte Avenue. She said she sensed that there’s been growth there, too, and if so, “a school in the San Antonio area would not serve the students in that neighborhood.”
Mountain View City Councilman Michael Kasperzak, who read the letter, acknowledged that LASD's need for a 10th school was on the radar of the city. However, he felt the letter was "a day late and a dollar short."
"Where were they two years ago, when we were working on our General Plan?" he asked, noting that the city could have identified land. "I don’t think there is anything the City of Mountain View can do to make things easier for LASD. We can’t interfere with the value of land so that they can buy it less expensively."
Kasperzak felt that the cities could open up dialogue, but not with a joint meeting of the two councils. Instead he proposed an intergovernmental committee that adhered to the Brown Act.
He also concurred with Abe-Koga about the issue of downzoning—"cities get sued for this all the time," he said.
Then he added another wrinkle—that as a governmental body LASD could exercise eminent domain within the city boundaries of Mountain View. However, that would cause a political and legal battle since it would potentially come at a loss of sales and property taxes to the city.
Duncan MacVicar, the Los Altos City Council representative on the Los Altos School District superintendent's task force on enrollment growth, has briefed the council about the task force's strong conclusion that growth was increasing north of El Camino, but apparently the Mountain View City Council had not asked its own representative on the task force to do the same.
"As for proximity to neighborhoods, again, not all students in MVWSD can walk to school either," said Abe-Koga, referring to the Mountain View-Whisman School District.
She also said she was concerned about equity. LASD was not alone in experiencing growth. Mountain View Whisman School District also is challenged by growing enrollment, and with the Measure G bond measure approved by the voters last June, MVWSD plans to upgrade their school facilities—to possibly include two-story buildings.
The stakeholders in the growth discussion go beyond school districts, others have contended.
A member of the Greater San Antonio Community Association, which wants the city to develop a detailed plan for the area before the Mountain View City Council approves further development, supported the letter.
"My observation is the number of school kids in the Crossings has ballooned in the last year—ballooned," said Paul Edwards, a Crossings resident, referring to the 18-acre condominium development built at the San Antonio Caltrain station in 1994. Depending on how many of the proposed housing projects join the already-approved projects, the number of new school-age children could be 500 to 900, he warned. He counted about 1,000 new units of housing in the area.
That, combined with 3,000 more car trips a day, and Edwards echoed concerns about uncoordinated growth as Los Altos, Mountain View and Palo Alto have been approving higher-density housing. In 2011, the Palo Alto School District purchased 525 San Antonio Road in southern Palo Alto after residents convinced the city council to turn down a bid to rezone a 2.65-acre preschool site for higher density to build 26 homes.
Merlone Geier, the developer of the Village at San Antonio, has estimated that less than 5 percent of the 330 units made up of studios, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments will have children. More than 50 percent of the apartments are one-bedrooms and studios, "intended for single adults with no kids," said Merlone Geier Vice President Mike Grehl. "This is based on industry experience and studies."
The Los Altos City Council has been looking at enrollment growth vis-à-vis the state law that requires each community have a housing element in its general plan. Outside of general references of the importance of education, the progress benchmarks focus on jobs, transit and housing, and don’t appear to include any goals for schools.
"We have to, as elected officials, look at all the dimensions to bring the high density into play," said Los Altos City Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins.
"We all look at transportation, circulation but I think we, both cities, need to look beyond circulation to parks, schools and everything to do this growth. What we were doing in the 1950s, was building a neighborhood."