Los Altos Hills district bid not legal, committee says
County education group postpones decision on redistricting, but some members contend proposal fails to meet nine criteria
Los Altos Hills residents who want to start a new school district in their small town got a harsh message from county officials last week: The proposal, which would pull hundreds of students out of Palo Alto schools to attend the new district, may not have any legs to stand on.
After a five-hour meeting filled with public testimony both in favor and opposed to a new district, some members of the Santa Clara County Committee on School District Organization plainly stated that the proposal would not meet the legal requirements of the state.
"This doesn't meet the nine criteria. If it doesn't meet the nine criteria, we have to say no," said committee member Nick Gervase at the hearing last Thursday. "I could make a decision tonight. I'm sorry if I upset too many people."
Committee member Steve Glickman added, "There is not significant evidence that the needs of the children are not being met."
The 11-member committee, however, did not vote on the proposal, deciding instead to hold another public hearing Jan. 25. Dozens of people who did not speak at last week's marathon meeting will have their chance at the second hearing.
Those who did make statements were split down the middle on the proposal.
Supporters said a new district is needed for several reasons, including preparing Hills children to compete with China in a global economy and giving families a neighborhood school through which to bond with one another.
Opponents, however, said the new district would be so small it wouldn't be able to offer as many electives as the Los Altos and Palo Alto districts, and there would be no continuity between middle school and high school.
If the committee were to approve the proposal next month, it would then go to the state Board of Education, which would determine whether children in Los Altos Hills are being educationally deprived in the districts they attend now and whether those districts will be negatively impacted financially by a new district -- two of the nine criteria used in redistricting.
If the committee were to turn the proposal down, supporters said they would submit a citizens' petition, which would start the process again.
At the heart of the issue is a resolution passed by the Los Altos Hills City Council this spring, calling for the boundaries of all three school districts currently serving Los Altos Hills students to be redrawn. The result, according to the resolution, would be a new kindergarten through eighth-grade district in Los Altos Hills, where graduates would feed into Palo Alto's Gunn High School.
Such a complex maneuver would require voter approval, and the council wants to see a ballot measure no later than 2008. Currently, Los Altos Hills students are divided between the Los Altos Elementary, Palo Alto Unified and Mountain View-Los Altos Union school districts.
At stake for the Palo Alto school district is a potential loss of 400 Los Altos Hills students and $5 million in property taxes generated by their parents, Palo Alto Superintendent Mary Frances Callan said.
"We do not want to lose our Los Altos Hills families, and our Los Altos Hills families do not want to lose us," Callan said. "It's not a given that Los Altos Hills students would be grandfathered into our district. It's bad policy to allow K-8 students to attend Gunn High School. Our district would not seek a waiver for this.
"We are a unified district. We're based on a concept of K-12 articulation. The students move through a full flow of curriculum," she added.
The resolution cites the closing of four public schools in Los Altos Hills by Los Altos and Palo Alto school districts, causing "many negative effects" on the town's children and quality of life. It also says those districts are benefiting financially by refusing to open a site in the hills.
The Los Altos school district, however, is planning to reopen the Bullis-Purissima campus in the Hills by 2008.
Although the district has budgeted $2 million toward renovating the site, the plan doesn't carry much weight for supporters of a new district.
"We don't necessarily believe that's going to happen," said Los Altos Hills City Council member Mike O'Malley.
County committee members said they needed additional information before making a decision, including when the Los Altos district plans to start redrawing boundaries for the Bullis-Purissima site.
"There is something broke. (But) the thing that's broken is not the education. It's the communication," committee member Nejleh Abed said.
The second public hearing on the issue will be held at 4 p.m. Jan. 25 at the Santa Clara County Office of Education, 1290 Ridder Park Drive in San Jose.
Staff Writer Alexandria Rocha can be e-mailed at email@example.com.