Schools boundaries tough to understand, tougher to change
South Palo Alto families seeking to join district face sizable hurdles
Simran Raheja stood on a sunny street of her South Palo Alto subdivision and pointed to two nearly identical townhomes.
"That one is zoned for Palo Alto schools. That one faces this street, so it goes to Mountain View," she said.
The split troubles Raheja, who along with several neighbors is applying to Santa Clara County to transfer 18 parcels of her 40-unit complex, including her own, to the Palo Alto school district.
The mother of 2-year-old twins can list several reasons why she wants them to go to Palo Alto schools one day. Sharing a school district with neighbors will foster community in the complex, known as San Antonio Village, at 670 San Antonio Road. Her kids will attend schools known for excellence. And as a Palo Alto resident paying Palo Alto taxes, why shouldn't she, too, go to Palo Alto schools? It's logical, she said.
Raheja's petition will face hefty hurdles, however.
While many acknowledge long-established school boundaries can make little sense — Palo Alto schools Superintendent Kevin Skelly called it a "crazy-quilt pattern" — changing them is tough.
Each petition for a so-called "territory transfer" must undergo a rigorous county examination to meet nine state criteria. Those include: the transfer mustn't cause substantial financial loss to either district, rupture community identity — or be motivated by concern about property values, rather than children.
A Los Gatos transfer petition was denied in July when the Santa Clara County Committee School District Organization — a body of the county Office of Education — found the applicant was primarily concerned with her house's market worth.
Petitioner Elise Stassart was found by a county researcher to have written a blog entry explaining: "The territory transfer is more about making sure we can sell our property in 10 or 20 years without carrying the albatross of non-inclusive school district," according to the county's feasibility report.
The same county committee and researcher, Suzanne Carrig, will examine Raheja's case.
Carrig said she would look at factors like driving and shopping patterns, street layout and subdivision design to assess the claim that residents belong in Palo Alto, not Mountain View.
It could be tricky, she predicted.
"It can be hard. It can be emotional for a lot of people. How can you tell somebody that, 'No, you're not part of the Palo Alto community' if they say they are?"
The roots of perplexing boundaries that run right through subdivisions extend into the county's agricultural past, Carrig said. As recently as 25 years ago, farmland filled the landscape and school boundaries were drawn along existing property lines, before the advent of major suburbanization, she explained. Then, developers built over the invisible divisions without much thinking of it, she said.
In the days before overcrowding, standardized testing and heady competition, territory transfers were less contentious, she added.
Carrig's research on the Palo Alto petition will also take into account the perspectives of other stakeholders — and those aren't favorable, so far. Superintendents from both Palo Alto and Mountain View say they will likely oppose the petition.
"We're very crowded," said Superintendent Kevin Skelly of Palo Alto.
Enrollment hit a 20-year high this year, up 259 students from last year for a total of 11,431. The district has only one so-called "empty" classroom left to use as flexible swing space for art, science and other classes, according to Assistant Superintendent Scott Laurence.
Accepting new houses would set a poor precedent, Skelly said, and the district is wary of a domino effect.
"[Crowding] would be a hard argument to make to other areas, if you say 'yes' to this area."
Plenty of households within Palo Alto are zoned for Mountain View schools, such as along El Camino Real south of West Charleston Road, he said.
According to the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, 70 Palo Alto residents attend its schools.
The high-school district will also probably oppose the petition, according to Superintendent Barry Groves.
"We don't believe in piecemeal territory transfers," he said, adding the district is already serving its students well.
As a so-called Basic Aid district like Palo Alto, Groves' district relies mainly on property taxes rather than state money to fund education.
If the 18 parcels transfer to Palo Alto, their property tax will be lost to Mountain View-Los Altos, he said.
Superintendent Maurice Ghysels of the Mountain View Whisman School District could not be reached before press time.
Ironically, despite enrollment concerns, the petition likely wouldn't cause an immediate influx to Palo Alto schools. Raheja said only one child of the 18 units currently attends Mountain View schools. Groves said the high-school district has no current students from the complex.
The transfer petition may face opposition from other Palo Alto residents.
As first reported by the Weekly last Friday, the petition ignited a flurry of comments on Town Square, the Weekly's online community forum, with some alleging the petitioners were concerned only with property values.
"Since it is townhouses, it really is an attempt to get Palo Alto schools for Mountain View prices. I'd be a little less skeptical of the altruistic plea if this were between PAUSD and Los Altos — which are both strong districts — but Mountain View?" wrote commenter OhlonePar on Sept. 19.
Raheja disputed the property-value accusation. The petition is about building community in a subdivision that feels strangely split, she maintained, citing two neighboring children who aren't friends.
"Those two kids are almost of the same age, and they don't even play together. They don't know each other's names."
What about just knocking on neighbors' doors?
Somehow, it doesn't work, Raheja answered. People say they will get together but those intentions later vanish into thin air, she said.
The next steps for the petition will be public hearings followed by a 120-day research period and a public vote by the committee on the nine state criteria, Carrig said. If the petition fails to meet even one criterion, it won't be approved, she noted.
The public hearings on transferring 18 parcels from the Mountain View Whisman and Mountain View-Los Altos High School districts to the Palo Alto Unified School District take place Oct. 14 in Palo Alto at 3:30 p.m. at the school district's board room at 25 Churchill Ave. and in Mountain View at 5:30 p.m. the same day in the Mountain View-Los Altos board room at 1299 Bryant Ave.
Staff Writer Arden Pennell can be e-mailed at email@example.com.