By Barbara Wood
Special to the Almanac
The Las Lomitas Elementary School District board is scheduled to approve starting the bid process for leasing the Ladera School site, with the major question remaining whether the board will honor the neighborhood's request to put a binding limit on the number of students that could be allowed at the site.
The meeting is Wednesday, Dec. 14, starting at 7 p.m. at the La Entrada School Multi-Use Room, 2200 Sharon Road in Menlo Park.
The school has been leased to Woodland School, a private school for kids in pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade, for more than 30 years. The school site was purchased by the district in 1952 and used until Ladera School closed in 1979.
Woodland, which has 275 students, now pays $650,000 a year for the site. The lease originally expired in July, but the district has extended it twice, through July 2013.
At the November board meeting, Ladera residents and Woodland School representatives asked the board to put a limit of 325 students into the wording of the resolution the board must pass to start the bid process. That request has since been reiterated in a letter to the board from the Ladera Community Association.
Limiting the number of students is one of the only ways the neighbors can control the number of cars that must negotiate the steep, winding streets of their neighborhood to and from the school site. But the district could probably get a higher bid from a school that believed it had a chance to change the limit in the future and thus have more students to charge tuition.
The district offered to put the limit on students into any lease that is signed as well as in the marketing materials advertising the bid process. But neighbors say they want the promise in the resolution because it can't be changed later.
In a December 9 letter to John Ora, Woodland's head of school, and copied to the Ladera Community Association, Las Lomitas superintendent Eric Hartwig laid out the district's position. "On Wednesday night," he wrote, "the Governing Board must consider whether it is prudent and reasonable for the district to limit a tenant to 325 students for the next 50 years, or whether it is better to provide the School District and the community with the certainly for a 325-student cap for the foreseeable future, but permit flexibility for the community and the tenant to come back to the District and request an increase in students in the future should circumstances change. Of course this would only be possible if San Mateo County also approved a modified conditional use permit."
At last month's meeting, Woodland's attorney argued the limit must be in the resolution because it is a substantial term of the lease and if not in the resolution could be negotiated away by the winning bidder. Board members said they wanted to talk that over with their attorney, who was not at the meeting.
Since the meeting, the county counsel, who represents the school district, has written a letter to Woodland's attorney denying that the limit on students must be in the resolution in order for the board to be assured it is in the lease. "The appointed real estate negotiator will be acting at the board's direction" and "the final lease agreement is subject to the board's approval," the letter says.
The letter, signed by County Counsel John Beiers, makes clear that the district wants to get the maximum amount of rent for the site that it can. "The board determined that this (open bid) process would allow it to maximize the value of the asset for the district while at the same time protecting the reasonable expectations of the community," it states.
That community has let the board know they want the student limit in the board resolution. A letter from the Ladera Community Association, approved by unanimous vote, says including the cap of 325 students in the board resolution is "the most important request from the Ladera community".
Woodland School operates under a conditional use permit from San Mateo County because Ladera is an unincorporated neighborhood and the site is zoned for residential use. The use permit is up for renewal and the school has twice asked the county to continue the hearing on the permit. Now the district has stepped in and asked that the use permit, which includes the 325 student limit, can go to the district rather than Woodland.
Superintendent Eric Hartwig says the district decide to do this "so that we can move the process forward. … It is our intent to obtain a renewal which is identical to the current one so that Woodland or a new tenant would operate under the existing conditions."
A proposed timetable would have the district signing a lease with a tenant by July 2012. The lease would be for a minimum of 25 years and renewable for up to another 25 years.