Smart School Siting – 5
The end is near. After many years of working with and against the Sebastopol Charter School on a new facility a final decision from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is scheduled for October 25th for a proposed new campus for the school. I have been encouraging the school to stay in town expand the downtown campus, and share the local facilities available at that location. The other alternative would be to work with the local school district and other charter school to develop a long-term facilities plan for all the students given the fact we have fewer students than we did 20 years ago. There must be empty classroom space somewhere. But the school has relentlessly pursued a location on the edge of town, adjacent to, but outside of, our Urban Growth Boundary.
I had an op-ed published yesterday in the local paper. It was co-written by Sebastopol City Council member Patrick Slayter. Here is a link to the op-ed. The primary focus of the op-ed is that Patrick and I, and others, do not believe the county should be approved an auto-centric use like this school campus right outside the City of Sebastopol’s Urban Growth Boundary. If the county approves these kinds of projects, why do we go to the effort of creating Urban Growth Boundaries?
I will say it has been disappointing to try to rally significant opposition to the project. I’m not sure if people are simply afraid to say no to a school for fear of being anti-education or what. Or maybe I’m crazy and this really is a good place for a school. I hope that is not the case.If you’re interested in reading more history, I have 4 other posts about it which you can read here, and here, and here and here. And if you are interested in writing a letter to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors you can find their email addresses on the county’s website. If you want to attend the meeting it is schedule for October 25 at 2PM. At least a final decision will be made at that time and I won’t have to devote any more time or brain space to this issue. It’s been going on for many years and I am ready to move on. But having said that, if the supervisors do not approve the use permit and the school wants to discuss other options, I would be more than happy to engage them. I believe their is an alternative that can work for everyone. This proposed site only serves the school without consideration of the impacts on the wider community.
As I did before we entered into contract on the Salmon property, I again ask you to name a specific and available alternate site that meets the minimum 5-acre criteria the school requires. That is already far less than the lot size required by the California Department of Education, but…name a specific and available *2-acre* site.
The Taqueria was a Superfund clean-up site and unavailable for purchase.
The City declined to sell the parking lot.
We offered to buy Earth in Upheaval and were outbid.
We offered to lease or purchase Pine Crest, and SUSD held a special meeting on December 24 to lease it to short-term to an out-of-district charter. We also offered to buy Park Side. They have repeatedly affirmed that they will NEVER sell a surplus campus, and rightly so, given that enrollment is now increasing.
The City of Sebastopol nixed the Morris Street site, which we had made an offer on.
West County Towing would not bear school traffic given the incoming CVS project.
Property behind Andy’s (rejected our offer).
Dei (High School Road) declined to sell.
Marlow (116) declined to sell.
Schellinger (116) declined to sell.
St. Sebastian’s (Covert) declined to sell.
Sebastopol Cemetery (Pleasant Hill) had a permanent covenant protecting the gravesites.
So where is the site, Paul? Not ideally, but actually. Not vaguely, but specifically. Not sometime, but now. Where?
I am, truly, sorry that this project has caused you such distress. I honestly don’t see a rational basis for that distress, but I am sorry that you are experiencing it.
Let me start by saying I completely understand why the proposed site meets the criteria as established by the school’s founding vision. My understanding is that the school was conceived to be a public charter school with a Waldorf curriculum to allow for a public school alternative to the private Summerfield Waldorf School. And the vision included a rural campus in the Summerfield tradition. I see how the proposed site can provide classrooms, multi-purpose room, gardens, orchards, playing fields, track and all the other amenities that have been so beautifully designed and rendered. And you are correct. I do not have an in town location that will provide all of those things. But after the owners of the property pulled out of the school’s original deal as they had other buyers that were interested we did go back to the drawing board to look at our alternatives.
A month prior to the Salmon property becoming available again, we had a facilities committee meeting where I laid out a proposal for staying in town and expanding the downtown campus. You yourself said, ‘We can do this.’ And then a month or so later we were in contract for the current 20 acre property. The scheme I proposed would extend the existing downtown campus building along Burnett Street. You would be able to accommodate all the additional classroom space, including small multi-purpose music room. There would be approximately 10,000 sf available on 2 floors. Heck, go three floors and 15,000 if you need more space. This scheme would obviously be a different vision of the future of the school. Orchards, gardens, large multi-purpose room and track and field would not be part of the campus. However, some of those things already exist, or could be created near the downtown campus. There are local facilities that could be shared by the school and the community. Sharing these existing resources could save money for the school, and parents who are asked to make significant financial contributions to the effort, and build ties between the school and the larger community.
The Sebastopol Center for the Arts has a 300 seat auditorium essentially across the street from the downtown campus. Yes, there would be the complications of having to schedule events with the Center for the Arts, and you would have to pay for renting the space. However, you could rent the space for decades for what it will cost the school to build a facility of its own. And wouldn’t it be nice to contribute to a local non-profit arts organization.
Ives Park is also near the downtown campus and is currently used by the school for recess. Yes, it is not as convenient as opening the doors of a classroom and letting the kids run free, but it is a good amount of open space that is maintained by the city (I believe the school may currently pay a nominal fee for use of the park). I realize Ives Park is a little run down, but the city has a master plan for park improvements, but no money currently to act upon it. Wouldn’t it be great if the school could make a contribution to the improvement of the park? It would be a showing of community building and could help spur a capital campaign to raise the funds necessary to implement the plan.
You state that the city declined selling the South High Street parking lot. I’m not sure what conversations you had with the city or when, but Susan Olson and I had had a conversation with the previous city manager who was open to the idea. I have also personally discussed the idea with several current council members all of whom were open to the idea. Bob has mentioned former council member Michael Keyes was against the idea, but he is no longer with us. The city has openly discussed repurposing the parking lot for years. Creating additional outdoor facilities, like basketball courts, volleyball courts, which do not currently exist in the neighborhood, and other play space could be jointly developed by the school and the city. The school would have access during school hours and the community could access at other times. Again, what a great opportunity for community building.
You also mention increasing enrollment in SUSD as a reason the district would never sell a property. According to the annual city Level of Service report, in 2015-16 school year there were 796 students in the district. This includes the Charter School students. In 2010 there were 1,043. That is a significant drop in 5 years. In 1996 there were 1,400 students. So there must be classroom space for at least that many students in Sebastopol. Adding in Sun Ridge and Reach still only brings the total number of students in Sebastopol to 1,141. Maybe there was an increase this year, but I don’t think there is any demographic projection that gets the number of elementary school children in Sebastopol back to 1,400. And it may be true that the district will not sell property. And I know the Charter School would rather own than rent, but again, maybe an opportunity to compromise for the larger good. Sun Ridge did sign a short-term lease with the district, but at this point it looks like they will be there for the long haul.
Why don’t we have an open conversation with all interested parties including the SUSD, Sun Ridge and the city about school facilities that work for everyone? I know the Charter School may not have the best relationship with the district but I don’t think all the blame for that can be laid on the district. The Charter School needs to take some responsibility for that relationship. I have observed what I would call a bullying, arrogant attitude in dealing with the district, that I participated in when I was on the foundation board and I am quite honestly embarrassed about when looking back. I truly believe there is a solution to Sebastopol school facilities that will work for everyone without having to build expansive, and expensive, new school campuses.
I know the school would rather have their facilities all to themselves, but the ‘sharing economy’ is upon us and we all can benefit from sharing resources. We are facing potentially catastrophic effects of climate change and we all need to make changes to our lives in order to reduce greenhouse gas generation significantly and fast. We put solar panels on our homes, drive Priuses and shop at Whole Foods but these are not going to have the impact required of us. We need to make real changes to the way we have been building our communities for the past 70 plus years. We are completely auto-oriented society and we need to return to a time when we built our cities for people and not these machines we have come to depend on to move us around. Do you think this would have been considered an ideal school site in a time before cars? That is how we need to be thinking if we are serious about getting a grip on the generation of greenhouse gases. We owe this to future generations.
I understand the current 2 campus situation requires some parents to drive between the 2 locations. But that could be remedied. Maybe by staggering start times and encouraging parents that drop off their children at the K-2 campus allow the older students to walk in groups together to the upper campus, for example. There is more the school could do to encourage less driving in the current campus configuration.
I know the school thinks that being on the West County Trail makes the site accessible by biking and walking, but I don’t think that is at all realistic. I counted walking and biking students for a couple of years, every Wednesday. I know where people live and I can tell you there were many kids who live within a 15-20 minute walk of the downtown campus that were driven to school regularly. A 15 minute walk from the proposed campus site gets you to about Covert Lane/Healdsburg Avenue. There are not many residential neighborhoods between Covert Lane and the Hurlbut site so most students will live more than a 15 minute walk from the proposed campus. I find it completely disingenuous that parents who currently drive their kids to school say they are more likely to walk to the new campus. Most children attending the proposed campus will have to cross Highway 116, either as Healdsburg Avenue, or Gravenstein Highway North. This is a busy road for an elementary school aged child to cross.
I believe the school needs a new vision for its facilities future. The current vision needs evolve to take into account the impacts on the larger community outside of the Charter School family. The proposed site benefits no one in the community outside of the Charter School, and actually is detrimental for many. I believe the original vision does not fit into the realities of 2016 particularly when we are facing the catastrophic consequences of climate change. I think the school has an opportunity to create a visionary model of what a school can be in the 21st century. We have been building large school campuses isolated from the communities they serve for many years. There is a national movement to turn back to the neighborhood school. We could be a model for that movement, rather than a continuation of the school development practices of the past 50 years.
I understand the Waldorf curriculum has a large farming and outdoor education component. There are plenty of Waldorf schools around the world that do not have bio-dynamic gardens. The Charter School has turned out some really amazing people. I’m proud to say my daughter is one of them. I’m forever grateful for the education she received at the school. I know the school draws people to Sebastopol because of its reputation. But this reputation has been built with the school in its current facilities. Families are not moving to Sebastopol and enrolling their children in the Charter School because someday they might have a beautiful campus on 20 acres with gardens and orchards. They are coming because the school is made of an amazing group of families, teachers, staff and students. That is what makes this school so special and successful. The school will continue to be special and successful without this property. I feel like only the problems with the current facilities can be seen now that so much time and money have been spent on this new campus. But the current facilities are really special. Sure, improvements can be made, and I think improvements are possible. I think the school should build on what it has instead of scrapping it to start anew. It will be many, many years before those beautiful renderings become a reality, if they ever will. The Summerfield High School is still occupying modular classroom buildings installed in the 1980’s.
I also have to say this project is not universally beloved by school families. I have been contacted by parents that are opposed to the project, but have been unwilling to speak out for fear of reprisal, particularly for their children. I find the lack of ability to voice an alternate opinion troubling. The attitude of the school leadership around this project seems to be get on board, or get out of the way. I certainly felt that way. Once the property was purchased and I was unwilling to keep my opposition silent I was asked to step down from the Charter Foundation board. Others opposed to the move feel they need to stay silent or risk becoming outcasts in the school community.
I have no ill will to the school or anyone that is advocating for the proposed property. I have a different opinion and feel compelled to do what I can to support the way I think our cities should be evolving. The Sebastopol City Council unanimously approved to extend our Urban Growth Boundary for another 25 years. I’ve been on the General Plan Advisory Committee and the Planning Commission and I know Sebastopol is trying to contain the growth at its edges and focus that growth in the core. In his comment to my Close to Home article Bob notes that the school has not asked the city to extend the Urban Growth Boundary so that the school may connect to city utilities. This is not the prime reason for having an Urban Growth Boundary. The main reason for the Urban Growth Boundary is to contain the expanding developed footprint of the City of Sebastopol. This project without a doubt expands the cities boundary. It will attract a large number of daily car trips to the edge of town. This is what the Urban Growth Boundary is meant to prevent. The county should respect the city’s desire to limit its outward expansion, and the school should as well.
The school also asserts that if the school is not built that the property is zoned to allow it to be divided into 10 single-family home parcels. The school continues to hypothetically note that each property could have a second dwelling unit. Assuming this would all come to pass, that would be up to 20 residential units on the 20 acres. Unless each property generates 30 car trips a day, the school will still generate more traffic to this property. I don’t know if everyone would agree the school will be less intensive in development than a theoretical development of 10 residential properties.
I believe there is a solution that can be a win-win for everyone. But we need to have an open conversation about what that would look like. The school has been acting in a very insular way, but the school’s decisions impact more than those within the school community. I know many people have donated countless hours to this project and it is difficult to change gears and consider another path forward. And I don’t expect this to change your mind, or anyone else that is leading this charge. But in the chance that the use permit is not approved I don’t think all hope is lost. I believe there is another globally responsible way and I’m hoping the school gets the opportunity to explore that way.
Thank you for your expert interest in Sebastopol. As a home owner who lives adjacent to the property bought to build the new Sebastopol Charter School, I’m looking forward to having them for neighbors. As development goes, this school seems to be low on the scale. This property could have been developed into many home lots, with disruption to our quiet dead-end street. The county very wisely limits the amount of property that can be built on, assuring open spaces on this campus. Also, I don’t understand the term “drive-only school”, since the Joe Rodota Trail runs along the front side of the property, seeming to enable some students to walk and ride bikes to school.
I understand your preference for the school, although I personally feel it is more intense development and will result in more car trips than 10 single family lots. In regards to the trail, I simply feel the school is too far from most of the residential neighborhoods in town for children to be expected to walk or bike. And most children would be required to cross 116 which is a very busy road during the before and after school hours. And I would not feel comfortable as a parent allowing my daughter to walk on that trail on her own. I feel better about her walking through town where there are many eyes on what happens along the sidewalk. The trail is rather isolated from watchful eyes.