At last night’s School Board meeting, the Board discussed the idea of potential land swap between the San Carlos School District and the City of San Carlos. It’s a very exciting development with great possibilities, and the entire board was very supportive of the idea.
As almost all residents of San Carlos (and certainly all parents in the school district) know, enrollment in the district has been growing at a fast pace and is projected to continue to increase over the next decade. Rightly so, San Carlos continues to get accolades as one of the best places to live in the area, driven in part by the quality of the schools. The school district has been planning for this growth for a number of years, and twelve months ago we passed a new Facilities Master Plan to address both the capacity issue as well as transforming our learning environments for a 21st century education. This plan calls for the building of two new 4th-5th grade schools — one on each of the existing middle school campuses — as well as technology and other upgrades at all school sites. Construction is set to begin on the Central campus this summer and on the TL campus one year later. It’s an inspired solution which accomplishes a number of goals, including: (a) creating new schools in a 21st century design, (b) preserving equity across the district, (c) giving back quality space to elementary schools, (d) being extremely cost efficient, (e) providing flexibility for future growth, and (f) reducing traffic at most school sites. The only real open issue was what to do with the Charter Learning Center. If CLC were to remain on the TL campus, that campus would get very crowded and traffic woes (already severe given the proximity to Carlmont High School) would worsen. Although as part of any new construction we would significantly improve school entrances and traffic flow, it would continue to remain a hot spot in the district.
The Board agreed one year ago that the best solution would be to move CLC to a new location that the District would have to find. The CLC leadership team has been very supportive of this effort. But as you can imagine, it’s been extremely difficult to find a suitable site for a school in San Carlos at any reasonable cost. The District has spent most of the last year looking to do just that, and no good options have appeared. However, in discussions with the City of San Carlos, the idea was floated to do a land swap. The City has for many years owned a property on Crestview Drive (click here to see approximate location), and the proposal is to swap this parcel of land for the upper part of the Tierra Linda Campus (the part where there is currently a Montessori school and a run-down dirt softball field). If this were done, the school district could build a new CLC on the Crestview site whereas the city could build new sports and recreation facilities (e.g. soccer field, etc.) on the upper TL Site. As the new city park would be used largely after school hours, there would be little traffic impact during peak school times.
In doing this sort of deal, we’d accomplish many goals at once:
- Increase available park/recreation space — specifically playing fields — in San Carlos
- Accommodate the increasing enrollment of SCSD while reducing traffic congestion and student overcrowding at the TL campus
- Maximize use of existing resources of both the City and SCSD and save taxpayer dollars
- Complete a transaction quickly and easily (a land swap has many fewer administrative and legal hurdles than a purchase or sale)
- Strengthen the partnership between the City and SCSD and set us up for further exciting initiatives in the future
In addition, the CLC site would be able to accommodate a small open space/park/field, and the District will be building enhanced field spaces on both the Central and TL campuses as part of its renovation in any case. So, the net result is truly a win-win!
Of course, the city may choose to sell the parcel of land to a developer (and according to newspaper reports, the city has offers from developers in the neighborhood of $18 million). The City Council of course needs to decide which path is more valuable to the community. Of course they have the right to determine that pocketing the $18 million has a higher value than the extra field space, but I would argue that the annuity of having this extra space so desperately needed is worth much more. In fact, the choice is even starker than that. If the city were not to agree to such a swap, then the District would have to go to an alternate plan for CLC. There are three possibilities — leaving it at TL, moving it to Heather, and moving it to Arundel. Although the Board hasn’t officially decided on what its “Plan B” is, it’s rational to believe that moving CLC to Heather is the next best alternative. Heather has the next biggest campus with a fair bit of space for a new school and relatively less traffic compared to TL or Arundel. If CLC were to move to Heather, that would mean a significant reduction in field space there — fields that are used extensively by the city and local sports groups. So, interestingly, the choice for the city between a land swap and a sale to a developer of the Crestview property could mean either a significant addition of field space or a net reduction of space.
Although certainly there will be (and have been) objections from residents who live adjacent to the Crestview site, I believe their expectations of having open space next to them forever is unrealistic. The city will likely choose of of these two options, and I would argue that having a school up on the site (rather than more housing) is better long-term for the residents and their property values. And ultimately, it’s hard to believe that a far majority of San Carlans wouldn’t be very excited about such a land swap given all the benefits community wide. And as Mayor Mark Olbert writes on his blog, we are really one community even though we have two government agencies responsible. And as a single community, we’d still own the same properties and in fact just leverage their use much better.
So, the ball in now in the City’s court. There will be meetings between City and District staffs, and the City Council needs to take up the agenda item to discuss their direction with the property. And a decision has to reached relatively quickly, because the school district will need to start planning for the alternative if the City decides to sell the property instead. Although I will respect their decision if they choose to sell it to a developer, I believe the greater value is in this deal. And I would further argue that if they believe in that concept, the relative appraised values of the properties are irrelevant. Something only has a monetary value if you’re going to sell it — if you’re not, we’re comparing immeasurable benefits — the traffic and overcrowding mitigation for the school district and the field spaces for the City. So, I would hate for any discussion between the two entities to get mired in negotiations over value or notions of one agency paying another just because of a number written on a piece of paper. This is an opportunity for an amazing partnership that can transcend bureaucratic ways of doing business for the purpose of significantly enhancing this community and serving so many of its citizens.