Los Altos Hills City Council is taking steps to create a new kindergarten through eighth grade school district within its town boundaries. This issue has significant ramifications for Palo Alto schools, as well as those in Los Altos and Mountain View. Here is the situation as I understand it:
Currently, Los Altos Hills (LAH) school-age children are served by three districts: Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD, serving K-12), Los Altos School District (LASD, serving K-8) and Mountain View/Los Altos Union High School District (MVLA, serving 9-12). LAH children attend schools according to whether they live in the PAUSD or the LASD/MVLA attendance areas.
There are currently no public elementary schools within LAH boundaries. PAUSD closed its one LAH elementary school in 1976 due to under-enrollment, and has been leasing the property to Pinewood School since then. LASD closed Bullis Purissima Elementary in 2003, after voters in that district, which includes Los Altos and Los Altos Hills residents, approved a more than doubling of the parcel tax which LAH voters believed would ensure the continued operation of the school.
When Bullis Purissima was closed, Bullis parents formed Bullis Charter School (BCS), which was chartered by the county in September of 2003 but not permitted by the LASD to operate at the Bullis Purissima site. It was instead located in portables at Egan School in Los Altos. Since the goal of the BCS founding parents was to keep elementary education in LAH, this was not the solution they had in mind.
The LAH City Council formed the Public Education Committee (PEC), whose goal was to research ways to return public education to LAH. Over the course of about 2 1/2 years, the PEC surveyed residents and identified options. During this time, the goal became not one of just having an elementary school in town, but one which could be attended by all elementary age students in LAH, regardless of whether they live in the PAUSD or LASD attendance areas. After exploring a number of options and presenting its findings to the LAH City Council, it was decided in July of this year that LAH would pursue the creation of its own K-8 school district.
This is where things get dicey for neighboring districts.
First, there is the potential loss of some or all of the tax revenue for the three districts that currently serve LAH. For PAUSD, the total contribution from property and parcel taxes for LAH is about $6.2 million. For LASD, the total is $5.6 million, and for MVLA, $3.7 million.
Second, there is the question of where the students go to high school from the newly formed district. It is logical and in keeping with state law that students in a K-8 district feed into a 9-12 district, however, residents in the PAUSD attendance area have made it clear, understandably, because it is one of the premier high schools in the country, that they still want access to Gunn High School. LAH City Council has assured LAH residents that there are only two options: For LAH students to continue to feed into Gunn, Los Altos or Mountain View high schools according to the current attendance areas, or for all LAH students to feed into Gunn.
Clearly, either option presents difficulties for PAUSD, which serves K-12. School Board members are elected by the population served by this district, and property and parcel taxes are paid by property owners in the PAUSD attendance area.
Supporters of the redistricting plan want LAH students to have a shorter commute to school without having to take a bus or cross any of the major thoroughfares that border LAH. They also believe that a stronger sense of community will be created by the presence of a school district within LAH borders.
I see several disadvantages to LAH residents with this plan:
* Most LAH residents do not have children in elementary or middle school. The presence of a local school will not affect their sense of community. They are primarily interested in their property values, which will depend on the performance of the new district, and if those students are permitted to attend high school in Palo Alto, whether the loss of revenue from LAH to PAUSD will negatively impact PAUSD's performance. All this will take years to determine. Anyone planning to sell his or her home in the meantime should be prepared for this uncertainty.
* LAH residents in the PAUSD attendance area with children in grades K-8 will lose access to PAUSD choice programs, including Hoover, Ohlone (though currently there are no LAH students there), Spanish Immersion at the elementary and middle school levels, Connections at JLS, Direct Instruction at Terman, and possibly in the future, Mandarin Immersion.
* There are currently approximately 600 students in public school in K-8 in LAH. This would be by any measure a very small school district, with fewer students than the number required by law. LAH City Council is counting on many of the 400 or so private school students in LAH to return to public school when the new district is created. This is far from a sure thing. There are a handful of K-8 districts in this state that have fewer than 800 students, but while a small elementary school works well for most students, by sixth grade many are better served by a larger school with more options for electives and a larger peer group.
* Even if it is approved for students from the new LAH district to feed into Gunn High School, the rules would likely be the same as for any student who transfers in from another district, which is that if the school is at capacity, the student can be overflowed to Palo Alto High School, or possibly to a future third high school in Palo Alto.
There is a public informational meeting on school district reorganization and creation of a LAH K-8 district from 7-9 p.m. at Council Chambers, 26379 Fremont Road, Los Altos Hills. For questions about the meeting contact the city clerk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-7222. Also, more information is available at Web Link