The Ladera community is seeking assurances of fair access to play areas on public school property long leased by the private Woodland School.
On Wednesday night, Oct. 4, Laderans turned out in full force to what became a lively meeting of the Las Lomitas Elementary School District board as they contended that Woodland has restricted community use of the field and other recreational space on the property at 360 La Cuesta Dr.
“I can't tell you how much I support the field being used by the community,” Diane Schrader, who has lived in Ladera for 20 years, told the board. “I don't think that we ever as a community thought that we were going to give up rights -- our rights to play, our rights to come together.”
Woodland leaders also participated in the discussion, citing safety as a key reason for trying to keep general neighborhood use of the recreational areas to outside school hours. But they also expressed appreciation for and willingness to work with community members on their concerns.
“School safety and security is our top priority,” said Ramzi Ramsey, a board member at Woodland, an independent preschool-to-eighth-grade institution that also offers enrichment, extended-day and other programs.
However, Ramsey said, “we will do everything in our power to ensure Ladera has access to school facilities outside of operating hours. For the Ladera parents, who also share security and safety concerns for their children and grandchildren, I hope you can appreciate where the Woodland community is coming from.”
In all, 52 people spoke on the community-access issues during the meeting’s public-comment segment -- 48 in person and four via Zoom, according to district spokesperson Kelli Twomey.
At one point, board President Jason Morimoto pleaded for calm as emotions rose during the public testimony.
“I should not have to remind my own community here to please be respectful,” Morimoto said, “and I ask for no jeering, no applauding, no clapping. I hope that all of us here can be able to do that. It's not that big of an ask, and I thank you again for your cooperation.”
Much of the contentiousness and confusion involve conflicting information from different but related documents about the operating hours at Woodland, which has a lease agreement with the district for the former Ladera School campus going back to the early 1980s.
Woodland’s student and family programs run from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., according to Head of School Jennifer Warren.
But a 2017 lease amendment twice states Woodland’s school hours being 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. yet in another section indicates 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Warren told The Almanac in an email that “the intended lease term” was 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
However, she said Woodland’s existing conditional use permit (CUP) with the county goes to 5:30 p.m.
What Woodland should have done following the amendment approval was ask the county to align the CUP hours with the lease, said Warren, who was not head of school at the time. While Woodland has a Portola Valley mailing address, it's located in unincorporated San Mateo County.
“This would have extended the hours from 5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. by the County of San Mateo,” she said. “We now are requesting this amendment in the current CUP renewal process.”
Ladera residents, though, said they find those ending hours too late to be allowed to use the field and other areas of the campus. They feel access should be more in line with the regular hours at the district’s Las Lomitas and La Entrada schools, which typically let out at about 3 p.m.
A letter to the board individually sent by about 30 residents argues that the play areas had been available to neighbors outside district regular school hours but “are now severely restricted from the local community they were originally intended to serve.”
The letter also complains that Woodland’s intentions came “without any public notice or any input from the community.”
In addition, the letter points out that the site provides “the only public field accessible within walking distance of the Ladera community.”
It also has basketball courts, is next to the sports-related Ladera Recreation District and is “surrounded by pedestrian-friendly pathways that encourage social interaction and foster a close-knit community,” the letter says. “These adjoined spaces have served as a vital gathering and recreational area for generations of Laderans. Limiting community access is detrimental for all Laderans, especially Ladera public-school students, who are geographically isolated from Las Lomitas and La Entrada school campuses and no longer have sufficient access to outdoor play areas.”
At the meeting, resident Trevor Oliver told the board that his two young children love to run around and play soccer. But “they don't have any place to play after school when they get home,” he said. He argued that the district “is failing approximately 15% of its students by giving them no open space that they can play.”
Some residents sounded a cooperative or conciliatory tone.
“Ladera is important to me,” Josh Rubin said, his voice trailing at times. “I grew up in Ladera. I moved away. I went to college. I lived in Palo Alto. I lived in Menlo Park. But where did I come back to raise my two kids? Ladera. Because it's a special community, and that's why Woodland chose Ladera to create a program, to grow their children. And we're together. We're so together. We are the same community, and we need to be that.”
Warren also addressed the board that night. “I take the concerns and perspectives expressed tonight very seriously,” she said. “I connect with anyone from the Ladera community who has had issues ranging from street parking to campus access. I strive to respond to all of the emails and notices on the Listserv in a timely manner. And with as much transparency as possible, I approve as many facilities-use requests as I can to share the campus with the broader community.”
She works with the homeowners’ group Ladera Community Association and recreation center “to do our part as a neighbor in Ladera and provide as much access as we can outside of our full hours of operation,” Warren added. “But the most important role that I have every day is to ensure the safety of Woodland student, staff, families and our guests.”
District board members believe a resolution to the community’s concerns needs to balance safety considerations with providing places for residents, particularly children in the area, to recreate.
However, they said, the matter warrants much further study, including the effort to clarify details in the lease.
“I think we all have our students' best interests in mind both in terms of their wellness and access to spaces as well as their safety,” board member Laura Moon said. “I think what's become clear to me is that there are various points of confusion within the lease in terms of conflicting points of information as well as terms that may not be very clear.”
The district’s legal counsel, Gina Beltramo, advised that seeking any clarification in a contract likely requires another lease amendment.
Because of the multitude of factors that the board feels it has to delve into more, including legal-related issues, the trustees plan to meet at a future date in closed session.
“I think what is apparent is that there's going to be a need to be several more conversations here to really kind of get to a place that is thoughtful and the right outcome,” Morimoto said.