Private school feels squeezed by lease delay

Woodland School poised to spend $8 million

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By Renee Batti

Almanac News Editor

When Ladera Elementary School closed in the late 1970s, there was "a lot of angst in the Ladera community," says Lennie Roberts, who served as PTA president of both Ladera and La Entrada public schools, and experienced the turmoil first hand. "There was quite a battle."

Over the years, the Las Lomitas School District has leased the campus -- located in the small Ladera community near Portola Valley -- to private schools, including the preschool-through-eighth-grade Woodland School that has occupied the site since 1981.

The relationship between Woodland and the community has not always been smooth -- for many years there had been "longstanding differences," according to Ladera resident Rob Decker, a former longtime president of the community association. But about five years ago, a new administration stepped in, and "wanted to work the community, to improve traffic, parking and communication," he said.

"Since then, there's been excellent communication between the school and the community ... and follow-through on the part of the school."

As Woodland's lease of the campus nears an end, some Ladera residents have become concerned over the delay of the bidding process that would allow Woodland to compete for another long-term lease so that it might remain in the community and renovate the deteriorating facilities on the site.

Ms. Roberts and other residents joined Woodland School officials at a May 3 school board meeting at which the school site was discussed. "The concern (expressed at the meeting) was over the pulling back from their original schedule" of opening the bidding process for the campus, Ms. Roberts said.

The district had informed Woodland school last October, in a letter, that the bidding process known as an RFP process -- would begin in January 2011, according to a May 9 letter to the Las Lomitas district board written by David Spreng, chair of the Woodland School board of directors. That assurance from the district was a key reason the Woodland board signed a one-year lease extension, to July 2013, as expiration of its long-term lease approached.

But since giving Woodland that assurance, the Las Lomitas board and Superintendent Eric Hartwig determined that more strategic planning of the district's educational program and more review of facilities needs to be done before signing a long-term lease for the Ladera campus. Consequently, the date to begin the RFP process shifted, first to June 2011, then to June 2012 "at the earliest," according to Mr. Spreng's letter.

That presents a problem for Woodland School, whose board and supporters have pledged to spend over $8 million on renovation and upgrade of the campus.

"Respectfully, we no longer have faith in projected timelines regarding this lease and we must protect ourselves as an institution," Mr. Spreng wrote. "We simply cannot run the risk that we will be a school without a campus. ... Whether intentionally or not, the indefinite and impossible-to-predict delay in the long-term lease RFP is pushing Woodland out of its 30-year home and is effectively removing us from the long-term lease process altogether."

Woodland officials and residents are asking the board to push up its timeline for opening the RFP process, and Las Lomitas board President John Macdonald says the board has heard the message. "We understand the situation they're in," he told the Almanac, adding that the board has asked Mr. Hartwig to "see if there's a way to get the process going sooner."

Mr. Hartwig said he plans to meet with managers this week to consider whether the timeline can be moved up. "We want to be a good landlord, and they've been a terrific tenant," he said.

Both he and Mr. Macdonald stressed, however, that the district must consider what's best for its students first, and with student enrollment exceeding past projections and continuing to grow, it's necessary to plan scrupulously for the future.

"We need to determine whether we will be a two-school or three-school district," Mr. Hartwig said. (Currently, the district operates two schools, Las Lomitas in Atherton, and La Entrada in Menlo Park.)

Mr. Macdonald said the question of how much campus space is needed can't be answered before the district draws up a map for instruction into the future, and that takes time.

Further complicating the question is the lease of the district's La Loma site, near the district office in Menlo Park, to the private Phillips Brooks School, which has expressed interest in moving to the larger Ladera campus. Phillips Brooks renovated the La Loma campus at considerable cost; its lease expires in 2017, with a five-year extension option, Mr. Hartwig said.

Mr. Spreng, in his letter to the board, noted that the district has talked about a possible swap of campuses by Phillips Brooks and Woodland, but insisted that such a move wouldn't work for Woodland. For one thing, Woodland's enrollment exceeds the 276-student limit spelled out in the use permit for the La Loma campus.

John Ora, Woodland's head of school, said enrollment is expected to reach 316 in the future -- slightly less than the 325 maximum allowed by the Ladera site's use permit.

Both Ms. Roberts and Mr. Decker voiced concern that, should Phillips Brooks or another school move to the Ladera site, the spirit of cooperation and harmony with the residential community might be lost. Recently, Woodland School held a community meeting at which plans for a renovated campus were presented. Judging from the tenor of discussion at that meeting, "I think the community would prefer that Woodland stay," Mr. Decker said.

"They're a known organization, good neighbors, and the scale of their improvements ... and their plans for the future are all very much in sync with the interests in the community."

The plans include a new recreational facility that would be open for community use, and the continuation of an open, welcoming campus that is "a good match for the community," according to Ms. Roberts. "We don't want fences or ... an island."

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