Housing, new developments and a rising population are forefront issues on the minds of many in Pleasanton, particularly officials charged with addressing those topics. Lauded by some as a sign of the city's desirability, the effects of a burgeoning population are nevertheless felt in all arenas, from daily commutes to water availability.
And significantly, current and future growth impacts schools.
For the Pleasanton Unified School District, this impact is especially felt in the northern part of the city, where data projections show enrollment trends to be on the rise.
According to demographers, northern Pleasanton is expected to see a peak enrollment of almost 2,900 students in 2023, an increase of about 460 students from this past fall. Southern schools, on the other hand, are "stable or decreasing."
The schools especially impacted include Donlon Elementary, situated within the Val Vista neighborhood, Fairlands Elementary, just past the intersection of Santa Rita Road and West Las Positas Boulevard, and Hart Middle School, located in the Hacienda Business Park. As of Aug. 7, 103 Donlon resident students were overflowed to another campus. Fairlands saw an overflow of 67 students and 26 Hart students were moved to Harvest Park.
Superintendent David Haglund, however, hastens to add that it's not a matter of overcrowded classrooms. The district is mandated by the state and its contract with the teachers' union to maintain certain student-teacher ratios -- 24:1 for students in TK-3; 33:1 in fourth and fifth grades; 34:1 at the middle school level and 37:1 in high school.
"This is not an issue of overcrowding because the contract that we have with the teachers' association limits class sizes," Haglund said. "We don't have the option of putting additional students in a classroom at a school, if space does not exist."
When over-enrollment occurs at a site, students are moved to another school. All schools in the district are experiencing overflow right now, although the overflow varies grade-wise. An elementary school might be seeing an overload of third-graders but have space in first-grade classes, leading to a sort of student shuffle among the different campuses.
Unfortunately, Haglund said, this might result in students from the same family going to different schools, disrupting the ideal goal of sending students to their neighborhood schools. So the district sees excessive overflow as only a temporary solution -- as is the use of "portable buildings" used to fill in as classrooms.
"Portable buildings are meant to be temporary housing, they're not designed for permanent replacements of buildings," Haglund said. "In many cases in many school districts, you put a portable on a campus and it just has a tendency to stay."
School and district officials agree, then, that a long-term solution needs to be found soon -- for the future of PUSD, its students and all Pleasanton residents, particularly those affected by congested traffic patterns.
After months of board workshops, demographics reports, community input meetings and surveys -- all wrapped up in discussions on the Facilities Master Plan and use of the $270 million Measure I1 bond money -- the district has settled on four distinct options.
The board recently approved a $47,000 contract with Aedis Architects, a firm that will be putting together conceptual designs and cost estimates of the various proposed options.
Nothing has been decided yet, and the final choice could be a completely different solution, or a combination of these options, PUSD staff say.
But the currently identified possibilities under PUSD consideration are as follows:
1. Adjusting school boundaries
This option looks to change enrollment boundaries, solving the over-capacity issue by redirecting students from northern campuses to less-populous schools in the south side of town.
One of the main attractions of this option is the relatively low price-tag -- costs tied to traffic studies and other logistics rather than in new facilities construction. However, board trustees and parents alike criticized the possibility as a short-term answer, and worried that boundary adjustments could change the neighborhood character of PUSD.
"Boundary changes are a pretty temporary, Band-Aid type of fix," board vice president Valerie Arkin said at a special workshop in April.
"We pride ourselves in this district of kids going to their neighborhood school," she added later.
At the May community input meetings, one person voiced the opinion that the change would be a "tough transition for students and families with multiple kids at different schools," according to data compiled by the district, a sentiment echoed by many others.
Someone else noted that the "school board would have to be brave," perhaps anticipating parent discontent with the potential adjustments.
The demographers responsible for analyzing enrollment data also advised against changing boundaries as a solution, pointing to the significant growth disparities on the horizon between north and south Pleasanton.
2. Building a new elementary school
A new elementary school would require significantly more construction, and comes with a whole host of logistical issues, not the least of which being the question of where to place a new campus. However, it also happens to be one of the items listed on the Measure I1 bond that voters approved in 2016 -- a fact trustees have brought up at recent school board meetings.
"The community trusted us with their vote, and we need to do what the bond list says," Arkin said at a March meeting focusing on the district's Facilities Master Plan.
Funding aside, a big part of the logistical puzzle in this case revolves around where a new campus would be constructed, balancing available district land with where a possible school is actually needed. The district-owned Neal property had been previously presented as a potential site -- however, its location in the southeast part of the city makes that difficult, though trading or selling the property for a more northern parcel is also an option.
Parents who participated in the district's outreach efforts saw building a new elementary school as a good long-term possibility that would reduce overcrowding and hopefully traffic.
However, they also viewed this option as one of the more high-cost possibilities, both in terms of infrastructure and land purchase. Several also pointed out the many years of construction going this route would take, and that boundaries would have to be adjusted as well.
3. K-8 school configuration
The idea of converting Hart and/or Donlon into a kindergarten through eighth grade (K-8) was raised earlier this year as a way to handle the increasing capacity issues at both the elementary and middle school levels. This particular solution has since been presented as a way to use the over-enrollment issue as an innovative opportunity.
A K-8 model could offer continuity for students, and allow them to strengthen bonds with teachers, especially at a time of transition commonly known to be "rough," according to staff.
However, questions remain for parents and staff alike. Cost and traffic concerns were raised in the community survey, as did some uneasiness around the wide student age range and safety of younger children. Equity issues were also top on people's minds, for ensuring that all students throughout the district have access to a high-quality education.
Haglund said that he's managed K-8 schools before, and has seen them work well, particularly in terms of allowing for more personalized learning opportunities -- an elementary student seeking to take a higher level math course could stay on the same campus, for example. But he said that the significant rate of community "dissonance" made him start "walking that concept back" at the last board meeting, adding that perhaps it could be considered at a future time.
"If we're trying to meet the personalized learning needs of a student, it gives us greater flexibility," Haglund said. "So from my perspective, it's a great solution. The question is, is that the problem that we're having right now? That we need a new instructional model? Or do we just need additional (space)?"
4. Increasing enrollment capacities
The final possibility under consideration is to increase school enrollment capacities through expanding the existing school sites.
Community members appreciated that this would allow students to remain at their same neighborhood school, and is potentially cheaper than building a whole new campus. However, public survey and meeting respondents also posed concerns that forming larger schools would create other problems, such as losing the sense of community and quality of education, additional staffing needs and traffic congestion.
"You would need to hire more teachers/administrators to help maintain a healthy school environment," one survey respondent wrote. "With too many kids on campus, it would be too easy for kids to become a number. Or worse yet, it may be harder to notice when kids are suffering from emotional problems."
At the moment, the district and city of Pleasanton are in the midst of completing a traffic study, just as Aedis Architects is beginning to put together conceptual designs for the various options.
Two community forums are currently set up for Sept. 13 and Nov. 27 -- though the meetings are more general in nature, parents and community members are urged to express their opinions on enrollment and capacity issues at these times, Haglund said.
Leadership teams at the various school sites will also be meeting up throughout the fall, leading up to a board workshop on Dec. 18, according to Haglund.
"And so we'll probably be at a place where we can narrow the options for the board to consider, and if all goes well, we can present a potential solution that the board would first hear in December, and then we would come back in January and approve it," he said. "If we're at that place. If not, we'll continue down the road."