Ladera residents may sue school district if access to Woodland School campus doesn't improve | November 17, 2023 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - November 17, 2023

Ladera residents may sue school district if access to Woodland School campus doesn't improve

by Angela Swartz

Around 350 Ladera residents signed a petition to nix restrictions on community use of play areas on a public school property leased since the 1980s by the private Woodland School. And they're considering legal action if the school district doesn't reverse its policy.

Residents, some of whom are part of a group of Ladera citizens called the Equitable Access Rights Alliance, presented the document to the Las Lomitas Elementary School District board on Nov. 8, and contended that Woodland has restricted community use of the field and other recreational space on the campus at 360 La Cuesta Drive.

During the same meeting, the school board met in closed session for property site negotiations with Woodland School officials, but did not come to an agreement about how to move forward.

About two dozen speakers, many who are neighbors of Woodland School, lobbied the board to increase access to the play areas before the closed session meeting.

Restrictions began in 2017 when the school district brokered a lease agreement amendment with Woodland to close access to the areas until 5 p.m. on weekdays, but Ladera residents say it's only more recently that the school has begun enforcing them.

"The geographical separation of your neighborhood (Ladera) from the rest of the district community puts you at a disadvantage in many ways," said Trustee Heather Hopkins during the meeting. "I also understand how shocking and upsetting it must have been to learn recently that things changed in regard to the lease back in 2017."

She noted that the board should work to make its agendas easier to access, but noted that all government bodies use similar systems.

"Unless they (the board) specifically tried to increase communication and make their board accessible this is standard," Hopkins said, referring to board notice of the agenda item amending the lease terms in 2017.

Ladera resident Karen Marchiano, a parent to first and third graders who attend Las Lomitas School, asked the board to "try to represent its constituents as aggressively as possible in this lease negotiation."

"Keep in mind that this is about the health and wealth welfare of the children in this community, which is one of your core missions as the school board," she said.

The petition states that Woodland's play areas are the only public open space for play and recreation within our neighborhood or even within close proximity to the neighborhood. Laderans are calling on the school board to amend the lease to open the play areas to the public at 3:30 p.m. on weekdays and maintain unrestricted use of the areas on weekends, public school holidays and during winter, spring and summer break. They also want to amend the lease to prohibit the construction of a parking lot on the play areas.

In October, leaders of Woodland, which has about 300 students in preschool through eighth grade, cited safety as a key reason for trying to keep general neighborhood use of the recreational areas to after school hours. But they also expressed appreciation for community members and a willingness to work with them on their concerns.

Trustees also considered a change to a board policy to state that although school facilities are available for community use when the activity does not interfere with the district's instructional programs, leased properties like Woodland that have spelled out agreements for use of facilities would be exempt.

The board voted to table the policy change, acknowledging that, given feedback from Laderans, it didn't make sense to even be presenting it at this time. Interim Superintendent Shannon Potts said the policy was drafted to make the existing facilities policy more explicit.

What sparked the recent upheaval

Dan Lopez, who's lived in Ladera for over 20 years, said his 11-year-old son who attends La Entrada Middle School in the district, was told to leave Woodland's field.

"What burned a lot of people is they started running people off the field," he said.

He alleged that the school has more consistently violated the lease terms by using the field as a parking lot and not properly managed its traffic.

District parents believe the district should charging Woodland more

The school paid $941,865 to the district to lease the land in 2022, according to a 2022 district financial audit. The district's lease with private school Phillips Brooks Academy brought in about $1.3 million that year for its campus.

Residents contend that although the district is bringing in money from the Woodland lease, the private school should be charged far more than what they consider to be its current below-market rate rent.

"It's woefully undervalued land," Lopez said. "The district has an obligation to lease at market value to private parties. They haven't been keeping up on the increases in rent they're allowed to. ... It's almost like the school district is gifting this to Woodland."

A lot of factors are considered when determining lease agreements, according to district spokesperson Kelli Twomey. For example, Woodland School pays for the maintenance and capital improvement of the property.

"Rates change over time based on many factors," she said in a Thursday, Nov. 9, email. "Comparing the rental cost of a property leased today to the rental cost of a similar property leased 11 years ago is an inapposite comparison. At the time the lease was signed in 2012, we believe it was set at a reasonable rate."

Lack of clarity in play area usage hours

Much of the contentiousness and confusion involves 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. Ladera School itself closed in 1979.

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, approved by the school board on Dec. 13, 2017, according to meeting minutes, twice states Woodland's school hours being 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. But in another section, it indicates the hours are 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Signs posted around the school state the campus is closed to the public until 5:30 p.m. on weekdays.

Warren previously told The Almanac in an email that "the intended lease term" was 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. After an Oct. 30 special school board meeting, the school made the following fixes to address residents' concerns, Warren said on Wednesday, Nov. 8: fixing the right turn exit out of Woodland School to make it safer for oncoming traffic and changing the signs on the fences saying that campus access begins at 5 p.m. on weekdays. School officials modified the gym lighting to face downwards to decrease light pollution, she said.

However, she said Woodland's existing conditional use permit (CUP) with the county goes to 5:30 p.m. Woodland should have asked 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."

But an attorney representing the Ladera alliance said that the conditional use permit from the county limits play area use only until 3 p.m. This news organization has submitted a Public Records Act request for the document to verify this claim, but has not yet received it.

Laderans want access to 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.

District board members believe a resolution to the community's concerns needs to balance safety considerations with providing places for residents, particularly local children, to recreate.

However, they said, the matter warrants much further study, including the effort to clarify details in the lease.

The district's legal counsel, Gina Beltramo, advised that seeking any clarification in a contract likely requires another lease amendment.

More on the potential facilities policy change

Trustees unanimously spoke out against amending the facilities policy. Board President Jason Morimoto apologized for bringing the policy update to the board, noting that there should have been more context given about the reason for bringing the change to the board.

"The redline policy appears to endorse a different standard for public property that is subject to a lease or license," said Trustee Paige Winikoff. "As an elected person ... I do not approve of any policy that subjects constituents to different standards, depending on where they live. I'm surprised by this. I do not want to vote for it now or ever unless something changes."

Trustee Laura Moon agreed, noting that she has received an "outpouring" of feedback from Ladera residents over the last few months regarding Woodland School play areas use and, more recently, the board policy amendment.

"I'd like to assure their constituents that we hear you and that we recognize our responsibility to act on your behalf," she said.

Legal action threatened

Laderans say they are "considering all options," including legal action, if the play area restrictions are not lifted.

Andrew Pierce of Pierce & Shearer, an attorney representing the Equitable Access Rights Alliance, said that his client will be taking legal action against the district if it doesn't amend the lease. He noted that the outdoor play areas within school were not offered to the public through the state's Naylor Act (which only applies to property that has been used entirely or partially for school playgrounds, playing fields, or other outdoor recreational uses) so they are governed by the Civic Center Act which states that every public school facility is considered a civic center for citizens.

"We urge the district to take these things into account in negotiating and potentially modifying the lease," Pierce said.

Lopez said community members "look at this as a much bigger issue than Ladera (and Woodland School)."

"It's privatizing public land and having the steward of that land be complicit in it," he said.

Woodland School Board of Trustees Chair Sharon Chang said that the district and school have made good progress in their discussions.

Ladera Community Association President Wynn White said Laderans needs to know that the district is representing the interest of the community and not just its tenant. n

I also understand how shocking and upsetting it must have been to learn recently that things changed in regard to the lease back in 2017.

Heather Hopkins, Las Lomitas trustee

It's almost like the school district is gifting this to Woodland.

Dan Lopez, Ladera resident


There are no comments yet for this post

Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Almanac Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.


Support local families in need

Your contribution to the Holiday Fund will go directly to nonprofits supporting local families and children in need. Last year, Almanac readers and foundations contributed over $300,000.