What Can the City Council Do For Our Schools?
Our schools are one of the most important issues for Fremont residents. While the City Council doesn’t technically oversee the schools, the Council makes many decisions that impact our schools.
In 2012, I pledged to not approve new residential developments if we didn’t know where those kids would be going to school. I have kept that promise and will make the same pledge again in 2016. We can’t approve problematic new development and then leave it to the Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) to figure out how to deal with it.
Unfortunately, our Council has a history of approving new residential development when the adequate school capacity does not exist. This was clearly seen in the Patterson Ranch development that was approved in 2010. The School District had no choice but to put these homes in an ‘unassigned’ district since there was no nearby school with available capacity. The developers actually sued FUSD to get this designation changed but lost. Now there is serious talk about moving these homes into the Newark Unified School District. This whole situation could have been avoided by simply not approving these homes.
There have been a number of developments approved since then which exacerbate this problem, and more on the horizon. For example, it’s unclear where students from the Art Walk (Fremont Blvd. south of Thornton) and Walnut / Guardino developments would go at this point. The school impact fees required for these developments typically pay only for a third of the new school facilities required (see below).
The net result of these approvals is an overcrowded school system. At a recent joint City Council / School Board meeting, the Superintendent of Schools noted that the District had 10 classrooms available for the 2016 school year while there was a need for 30 classrooms. The only solution the District has at this point is to create more portable units.
(As I’m writing this I read an article saying that the bathroom situation is so bad in our schools that students are reporting needing to wait their entire lunch hour to use the restroom.)
We Must Stop Making the Problem Worse
As noted, I am once again making a promise not to approve new residential development that doesn’t adequately pay for the schools that it will require. Fremont’s General Plan describes where and how dense residential development should be. The City’s zoning needs to comply with this. There are already a number of areas designated for residential development where the developer is entitled to build, and will likely only pay the required fees, increasing the problem we already have.
On top of that, our Council has approved many General Plan amendments that allow property to be rezoned from retail or commercial to residential. For these developments the developer usually pays only the required fees. (The one exception to this is the Warm Springs development where 4,000 units were approved. The developers did provide for a new elementary school and improvements to the junior high and high schools.)
With the number of developments that have been approved, and the inadequate fees that are required, it’s not surprising our schools are in such an overcrowded state. I pledge once again not to approve any new General Plan changes where the required new schools are not fully funded.
School Funding in California
Senate Bill 50 passed in 1998 and limited the amount of school impact fees a city or county could require for new development. The general rule of thumb is that the impact fees developers have to pay will for one third of the required new schools. The idea was that the State and the local municipality would each kick in a third as well. However, neither the State or most local agencies, such as FUSD, have the money to contribute to this.
Developer impact fees were capped at either Level I, II or III. Level I fees, the lowest ones, were required when a school district had adequate capacity. Level II fees were required when a school district showed it was significantly impacted. Fremont currently charges Level II fees.
Level III fees are to be implemented on a statewide level. The State has basically been out of money for schools since 2012 but the building industry has lobbied heavily to not have Level III fees implemented.
Now the building industry has worked to put a nine billion dollar statewide bond measure. Three billion of this would be used for new construction. If successful, this measure specifically says that Level III fees will NOT be implemented. I am against a bond measure that will put the burden of new school construction on the taxpayers. In my opinion, the impacts on new development on our school system should be paid by the developers doing that development.
Governor Jerry Brown understands the impact this would have on the State’s budget and agrees with me on this:
“I am against the developers’ $9-billion bond. It’s a blunderbuss effort that promotes sprawl and squanders money that would be far better spent in low-income communities.”
What Can Be Done?
The first thing that Council could do is to acknowledge that we need to consider the impacts on schools when approving new development, as opposed to hiding behind SB 50 and approving amendments to the General Plan that will ultimately harm our schools.
Schools are one of the most important aspects of our society. As the parent of a public school child, I personally understand how these issues effect Fremont residents. I will fight to make sure that we retain the high quality schools that we have and to make them even better.
I have written a number of articles on my blog related to schools.
Below are some comments from my position paper on schools from 2012 that give more background on the Patterson Ranch development.
The development at Patterson Ranch is a recent, clear example of Council’s activities contributing to school overcrowding. In October of 2010 (only two weeks before the Council election), Council approved a General Plan amendment to increase the number of allowed homes on the site from about 200 to nearly 600. There were NO provisions for an additional elementary school nor a new junior high school. (The junior high and high school for this area are located miles away on the other side of the freeway from Ardenwood.)
Before this development, Ardenwood schools were already overcrowded. The situation was so bad that the Superintendent of Schools himself spoke at both the Planning Commission and City Council meetings on this subject. He spoke eloquently and warned that students from these developments may have to attend schools in the far away Warm Springs or Niles districts. He warned that he couldn’t even guarantee that siblings would be in the same schools. I joke that I had a hard time with my son getting him ready in the morning when his elementary school was across the street from our house. I could only imagine what it would be like trying to get two children ready for school and then to have to take them across town to entirely different schools before going into work myself.
There is already a partially completed development in Ardenwood called Villa de Este. Students from the new homes in this development need to go to Warwick elementary, miles away on the other side of Interstate 880.
Not surprisingly, the subject of schools came up a lot during the Planning Commission and City Council meetings on Patterson Ranch. The developer mentioned some possible ways the schools could be funded in the future while providing nothing concrete. Of course, funding for education in general at the state level is in very bad shape making this a very unlikely source of funding. Despite the need for an additional elementary school in this area (largely from this development), there is no money available at this point to build a new elementary school.
The developer also said that any builder would not build these homes unless the school issue was resolved. In saying this he clearly overlooked the fact that homes have ALREADY been built in this area to the point that schools are overcrowded by several hundred students.
Despite the existing overcrowding in the area, the General Plan amendment to increase the number of homes allowed in the ‘arrowhead’ section of Patterson Ranch (bordered by Ardenwood, Paseo Padre, Crandall Creek and the railroad line) was approved unanimously by both the Planning Commission (7-0) and the City Council (5-0). The School District now has to consider these homes as “unassigned” to any particular school.
How can the School District provide adequate school facilities to our children when the Council makes decisions like this?