With plenty of housing being built in Mountain View and much more on the way, the Mountain View Whisman School District is considering redrawing school attendance boundaries to spread out an increase of new students in local schools.
The school board discussed potential parameters for possible boundary changes at a Thursday, May 18, meeting, weighing factors like campus capacity, balancing student demographics and transportation safety.
Thursday’s board discussion was preliminary and no timeline for a change has been announced, but district officials have signaled that shifting boundaries will ultimately be inevitable.
Rob Murray, a demographer from King Consulting, presented the board with an overview of considerations that districts typically take into account when shifting boundaries.
“It’s not that you have to settle these questions right here on the spot tonight, but (these are) just some things that would be prudent to have in mind as you approach what appears in your district to be definitely a question of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ you’re going to need to reapproach your elementary school boundaries,” Murray said.
The school board has held a series of discussions in recent years about ways to accommodate the projected enrollment growth as more housing is built in the region. The district’s student body held relatively flat over the past decade, dropping roughly 11% during the pandemic. However, the district expects that as more housing is built, more families with children will move into town.
Google’s plans to develop 7,000 units of housing in North Bayshore has drawn particular attention, with city planning documents estimating 1,321 additional K-8 students resulting from the project. The city and school district have run into disagreements over these numbers, which the city believes are overstated, but both parties agree more students will move into town.
Because of the timeline for housing development and the potentially large increase in students that could result, Superintendent Ayindé Rudolph told the school board that boundary changes will likely have to occur in phases. Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School is expected to be the first campus that will be impacted by growth, so the district could start by changing boundaries in the eastern portion of the district and move west, Rudolph said.
“It’s going to have a triggering effect on multiple schools and at the end of it, it may require different solutions,” Rudolph said. “You keep moving west until you hit a point where everything’s at a breaking point and then you have to reset and start again.”
Mountain View Whisman has previously said it believes that more schools will be needed to accommodate the growth, although how the district will pay for that expansion is an open question. Plans are currently underway for Google to set aside a parcel of land in North Bayshore for a future school. The idea is for Google to give the property to the city, which would then lease it to the school district. The details are still being negotiated.
The potential boundary shifts considered at last week’s meeting aren’t necessarily tied to opening a new school, but instead focused on balancing enrollment across the district’s existing campuses as more students arrive. The district has seven elementary schools with attendance boundaries, plus two “choice schools” that parents apply for their children to attend. The neighborhood schools range in size from 245 students at Monta Loma Elementary School to 380 at Amy Imai Elementary School.
The district’s last boundary shift took place four years ago when Vargas Elementary School opened. At the start of the 2019-20 school year hundreds of students were relocated to new campuses, changes that the board approved in 2017.
Changing school boundaries tends to be an extensive and often contentious process, with families facing the prospect of their children having to adjust to a different campus and new classmates.
Murray noted that in all the school districts he’s worked with, none have undertaken a boundary change without a pressing reason.
“You tend to do boundaries because you can’t avoid doing boundaries,” Murray said.
Before changing attendance boundary lines, Murray encouraged the district to decide how it will handle sticking points like whether existing students impacted by the boundary change can stay at their current school. Different districts handle this question differently, Murray said. Sometimes the policy differs by grade level, with solutions like allowing fourth graders to finish elementary school at their current site, while younger students have to move.
Balancing competing interests
As the board forged ahead on school boundary discussions, trustees weighed how to prioritize different and often competing objectives, including traffic safety, student body size and maintaining a neighborhood school model.
Trustees generally seemed open to having variances in school size if it meant that other issues could take priority. Board member Chris Chiang described trying to balance students as an “artificial restriction,” given that school campuses are physically different sizes and students don’t naturally live in equally sized groupings throughout the city.
“I hope we can, as a board, be less rigid about trying to make every school site the same,” Chiang said.
Instead, Chiang favored prioritizing traffic safety and ensuring kids have safe routes to school, noting the dangers the district has already seen. Last year, a 13-year-old Graham Middle School student fell off his bike and was fatally struck by a construction truck at the corner of El Camino Real, Grant Road and Highway 237.
Board member Laura Blakely agreed with Chiang that a one-size-fits-all model of school size isn’t realistic, arguing that instead the district prioritize maximizing space on campuses over time. She added that she believes the district will eventually need to take back the Whisman campus, located at 310 Easy Street, which it currently leases out.
Board President Laura Ramirez Berman also agreed that having differently sized schools was okay, so long as the campuses don’t feel crowded.
Another issue is the extent to which the district should prioritize maintaining a neighborhood school model, where students are assigned to a nearby campus that they can walk or bike to.
Board member Bill Lambert argued that while neighborhood schools were a focus in the last boundary-change process, the idea should now be revisited. With growth happening disproportionately in certain areas of the city, keeping a neighborhood focus will be challenging, Lambert said. He also argued that more housing and office development will exacerbate traffic, making walking and biking less feasible.
Lambert said that he was open to increased busing not just to spread students out so that campuses can be used more efficiently, but also potentially for safety and equity reasons.
Blakely, in contrast, said that she didn’t favor a large-scale busing plan and still liked the concept of neighborhood schools, with kids able to walk and bike. In light of safety concerns, Blakely suggested solutions like adding more crossing guards on major streets.
Board member Devon Conley encouraged the district to take into account existing transit routes like the Stevens Creek Trail when drawing boundaries.
Chiang said that busing could provide “gap coverage” to move students to under-enrolled campuses like Monta Loma as more housing is built, but before a new school can open.
Ramirez Berman said that while it’s ideal for schools to be walkable, she is open to busing if necessary. However, Ramirez Berman added that she would want to make sure that kids from all backgrounds are taking the bus. Busing programs in school districts around the country often prompt concerns that they disproportionately impact students of color and those from low-income families.
Addressing disparities at Castro
One focus at last week’s board meeting was how to draw the boundary lines around Mariano Castro Elementary School. Castro’s student demographics are starkly different from the district overall. In the current school year, 83% of Castro students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, more than double the 37% at Theuerkauf, which is the neighborhood elementary school that comes closest.
The state considers students socioeconomically disadvantaged if their parents didn’t graduate high school or if they qualify for free or reduced price school meals. A family of four has to make less than $51,338 to qualify for reduced price meals.
Ramirez Berman said that as the city grows, the school district should look carefully at things like where deed-restricted affordable housing is getting built when it develops new boundaries.
“So long as it means that our schools will end up looking segregated – the situation that we currently find ourselves in – I am willing to make some drastic changes to make sure that that doesn’t happen again,” Ramirez Berman said.
Chiang also favored prioritizing Castro’s demographics, noting that the district either needs to have a plan to fix the achievement gap that exists at Castro or boundaries need to be changed. Last school year, 22% of Castro students met or exceeded state standards in English Language Arts, compared to 66% districtwide. In math, it was 16% at Castro and 59% districtwide.
“That should be one of our leading drivers when it comes to boundaries – is to examine Castro,” Chiang said.
Castro’s boundaries have long been a cause for concern locally. During the last boundary change process, two trustees asked at the last minute whether it was possible to adjust Castro’s boundaries to lessen the socio-economic divides. A map that would have made modest improvements was ultimately rejected.