School Capital Facilities Planning

Call to Action

 

The trustees of the Los Altos School District need to take responsibility for allocation of bond fund resources.  They cannot just pass off this responsibility to an unelected committee.  The stated reasons for needing a bond depend heavily on creating facilities for growth.  By having a committee dominated by representatives of existing schools, the board is creating a bias against addressing the need of new schools yet to be formed.  In truth it seems likely that almost no funds will be available for more elaborate features at existing sites because of the cost of dealing with growth.  What is needed is a revised charter for the facilities master planning committee.  It must deal exclusively with growth and long range planning.  Only after a budget is created for this main goal will it be known if there are additional funds to use to improve the existing schools.  The trustees need to create a final plan for new school site creation before taking up requests for improvements to existing sites.

Note that there is no urgency in improving existing sites. What growth there is has been slow and steady. We are not out of space at any site. Creating new school sites may offload various sites to the point that they don't need some of their requests.  It makes the most sense to use a two phase process to create these plans.  First create a master plan. The additions of features to existing sites can all follow the finalization of a master plan, as secondary plans.

Careful  Planning

Because the projects undertaken with the currently proposed $150 Million bond must suffice for ten years, the planning for use of the funds must be very careful. At the same time, there are factors which affect this round of planning differently than previously.  The previous desire to upgrade and enhance existing schools is still at play. There is also still a goal of not increasing the number of schools at the elementary school sites.  The following areas add to the need for diligent planning for this bond:

  • Growth This time LASD does not have an unused closed  school site to reopen in order to handle growth. Ten years ago, LASD was able to reactivate the idle Covington site using 1998 bond money, and then grow into needing 9 total schools. Covington is still not fully utilized, being 16 acres in size compared to the district's estimate of the minimum size of 8 acres for an elementary school.  While land at Covington Elementary School is available to handle growth, the existing buildings are designed for just one school plus the administrative offices for the district as a whole.  As in 1998, utilizing what existing resources are in place is crucial to making the best of a  limited budget.  Growth throughout the district is ongoing and the district has admitted that it needs two new schools, though it could use existing land.

    In large measure the growth over the last 10 years has been handled by the coincidental transition of 700 students from every school in the district into the Bullis Charter School choice program.  LASD has to educate these kids, and without the existence of the charter option, most of its schools would be much larger. However, LASD has seen fit to negotiated a cap on the additional enrollment that can be handled by Bullis Charter School going forward. Bullis will handle at most 200 students from the district's growth over the next 5 years, compared with the 700 new seats added over the past 10 years. The portable buildings leased for the charter school are on what were originally the junior high school sites.  This is the most substandard of all of the portable usage by LASD, with no good site layout and no permanent infrastructure to support the operations of portable classrooms.  These portable "camp" sites were originally drawn up for one year use as various schools were remodeled.  They were never designed in layout or features to last as long term schools. The poor layout in these temporary portable sites is impacting their neighbors in terms of inadequate student drop-off areas which create traffic problems.   The sites are way below the size for similar populations at the district's traditional schools, which is contrary to state requirements. It's time these camp school sites were brought up to standards established by the district, or replaced entirely.

  • Population Shifts  Although LASD has always served many students in the area of El Camino Real, there are predictions of increased residential density in the area, both in Mountain View and in Los Altos.  The need has become clear to locate a school in that vicinity to serve the kids who live in the area.  This was recognized by the LASD-convened Enrollment Growth Task Force. Since Portola Elementary school was closed in 1980, these kids have been divided between further away schools.  Between 2003 and 2006 there was a jump in the number of kids coming from the area, and effective in 2008 the number of schools teaching El Camino kids was increased from two to three.  Since that time, roughly one third of the students at each of these schools has come from the El Camino area. The EGTF recognized that this was not faithful to LASD's model of local neighborhood schools, for these 500+ students. The most recent figure indicates 565 students in the Mountain View El Camino area alone. The EGTF found that this ad hoc solution had continued for too long.  In addition to this, growth will continue in the El Camino area as it will throughout the district.  The number of students to be addressed by a future El Camino school will certainly include the 15% growth over 5 years found in the overall LASD planning to rise from 5100 students to 5900.  Still to be seen is whether that projected 650 students will in fact be any larger.

Strategic Planning

The master plan needs to be long range. It must envision what happens in various scenarios over time.  It is important that the immediate desire for say a new library on an existing campus not get in the way of a long-term view and the optimal use of limited capital.

Brief History of Construction in LASD

In 1998, faced with 9 school sites with buildings that were nearing 50 years old, the Los Altos School District mounted an update effort.  They borrowed the most that they could at the time which was $94.7 Million with no specific project plan other than the reopening of a site which had been idle for twenty years.  This round of construction stretched out until 2008, but there were some extra financial maneuvers required to address all nine school sites.  In the end, each site had its major systems updated (electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and lighting including enhanced energy conservation). One major unaddressed concern was not addressed, which was the replacement of leased portables by permanent construction.  After the bulk of the construction, an additional loan was taken out and over 24 older leased portables were purchased by the district for long-term use.  The district resolved to continue the capital improvements at a future date, with an additional bond.


The Currently Proposed Bond

For the last 2 years, the LASD board has talked of plans to mount a new bond.  They had no choice but to wait because the legal limit on borrowing power needed time to grow.  (Despite all this time, there has been little detailed planning for the use of the bond.) It has taken an additional 16 years for this to happen, but the current borrowing power allows a maximum borrow of $150 Million, which has roughly the same construction impact as the previous bond considering inflation.  This $150 Million figure has another meaning.  It also happens to be the limit on the size of a bond issue which can be approved by a 55% majority, rather than 2/3.   Both aspects of the limitation are significant.  A good long time must elapse before the district can undertake more borrowing, even for an additional bond with a smaller construction capability.