Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Money pit: The East Side's newest school, Evergreen Valley High, cost $100 million thanks to overruns. Now some district parents say they need another school built because of overcrowding.
Affluent parents in the East Side District are making a lot of noise—and gaining influence—in their controversial push for a new high school
By Vrinda Normand
LOU KVITEK is out of patience with the East Side Union High School District trustees, and he doesn't care if his issue is unpopular.
"You got elected to do a job," he says sternly. "Make a tough decision and do it."
The 44-year-old software architect says the school board isn't moving quickly enough to secure a new high school in Evergreen Valley, a wealthy pocket bordering the foothills in southeast San Jose. Kvitek lives a few blocks away from the cushy Silver Creek Valley Country Club where the average household income is over $100,000.
His issue—and the problem he sees looming over thousands of sparkling new homes in his area—is overcrowding at the nearby high schools. He says the district has crammed too many kids into Evergreen Valley High, Silver Creek High and Oak Grove High.
Things are only going to get worse, Kvitek warns, with the 5,000 new houses proposed by developers for the Evergreen East Hills Vision Strategy. He and a handful of parents aren't wasting any time pressuring their local leaders to buy land and get the ball rolling for a new campus.
But East Side trustees don't share his sense of urgency.
For one, the development project is still in its formative stages, and San Jose City Planner Michael Mena says construction probably won't start until 2009 at the earliest. About 1,100 new high school students are expected to trickle into the Evergreen area over the next decade, according to East Side Assistant Superintendent Alan Garofalo.
Board president Manuel Herrera senses no immediate danger, especially because there are just as many underenrolled high schools in the district that can absorb new students. A demographic study completed last spring concluded that a new high school won't be necessary for another 12 to 15 years because attendance boundaries can be redrawn to balance student populations. There is room for 1,900 more students to meet the district's "optimal capacity."
The East Side wouldn't even qualify for state funding if it wanted to take on the monumental task of building a new school; its last pet project, Evergreen Valley High School, was riddled with management problems and rang in at $100 million, way over the $67 million it was budgeted when construction started in 1999.
"Lou [Kvitek] is pushing for a superaccelerated response to address Evergreen issues, not district issues," Herrera says. "He's brushed aside anything that doesn't have to do with Evergreen."
Taken from a broader perspective, the problem is more complicated than privileged students bumping into each other in crowded hallways—and there's a reason why the answer isn't as simple as moving kids around the district: dramatic socioeconomic disparities divide the 11 major East Side high schools.
"We have some very serious equity and segregation issues that need to be looked at," says Patricia Martinez-Roach, a controversial board member who lost her seat in the November election by 1.5 percent of the vote. As an East Side leader, she was known to rock the boat by pressing hot-button topics.
The anonymous and audacious critics at Unrulyrus.com, a website dedicated to the ESUHSD's tumultuous politics, have another way of describing the campaign for a new high school.
"What a bunch of snots they are," says one of the Unruly.
"[Evergreen parents] see a new school in an upscale neighborhood as the only safe alternative in a district operating in some of San Jose's most poverty-stricken communities," goes the latest Unruly rant. "Race and class divisions underlie the attendance boundary debate."
How Schools Stack Up
With nearly 25,000 students spanning 180 square miles of San Jose, the East Side Union High School District is by far the largest educational region in the county. It's also the most diverse.
Take two campuses in the district—only four miles apart but different in almost every way.
Evergreen Valley High, the district's newest school, is a $100 million educational marvel that opened in 2002 with "everything any school would hope for," according to Garofalo.
Evergreen Valley students come from the wealthiest families in the district, with only 11 percent qualifying for reduced-priced lunches. Among them are the fewest Latino students (23 percent) and English learners (9 percent) in East Side schools.
The swelling population at Evergreen Valley, currently over 2,400, has forced the district to pump $12 million into a new 30,000-square-foot building that will hold another 500 students when it's completed next year.
On the opposite end of the spectrum sits the East Side's oldest campus, James Lick High. The school submitted to state and federal intervention for its poor standardized test scores, although district leaders say recent improvements have been significant. They anticipate it will soon emerge from federal "No Child Left Behind" status.
But James Lick remains the most underpopulated school in the East Side with just over 1,000 students—500 fewer than it can accommodate. Nearly half of them qualify for reduced-price lunches, 81 percent are Latino and 39 percent are English learners.
The hallways at James Lick may be roomier and the classrooms may have more empty seats, but Evergreen parents complaining about overcrowding don't want to talk about sending their kids there.
Nor do they want to talk about sending their kids to Overfelt High or Yerba Buena High, which both have space for at least 800 more students. Overfelt is 75 percent Latino with the most English learners (45 percent) and most students qualifying for reduced-price lunches (50 percent). Nearly half of Yerba Buena's students also qualify for reduced-price lunches, 40 percent are English learners and 57 percent are Latino.
Do the Shuffle
For his part, Kvitek says changing attendance boundaries will only amount to "band-aids" and won't move enough kids out of the crowded Evergreen schools.
"Let's be realistic," he says. "Why am I going to drive past three high schools to get to another one?"
Kvitek lives on the southern end of Evergreen Valley, and the nearest high school, Silver Creek, is 4 1/2 miles away. Only two miles farther is the under-populated Overfelt High, which is about the same distance from his house as the coveted Evergreen Valley High.
Parents driving their kids to Evergreen Valley would only have to travel three more miles, or 10 minutes down Quimby Road, to get to Overfelt. Ten minutes down White Road will get them to James Lick High.
But Kvitek clings to the notion that driving these distances is unreasonable, and he insists there is nothing more behind the Evergreen community's reluctance to send their kids elsewhere.
"What you're getting at is the spin that people will put on it," he responds to the critics. "They're playing some kind of race card or socioeconomic card to say that all these people in these new million-dollar homes are just bitching and complaining."
"You know what?" he adds, "we got a right to complain. You have overcrowded our schools."
Kvitek claims the school board has been stalling on a solution to the overcrowding because it's a touchy issue that could lose votes for politically ambitious trustees.
Herrera calls Kvitek's allegations "off-base" and says the district has already started addressing the issue as part of a long-term plan to even out attendance levels and modernize some of the older campuses. Their initiative started with the demographic study—although the results didn't satisfy Kvitek.
The Evergreen advocate dismisses the demographer Tom Williams, an expert with 30 years of experience doing enrollment projections for schools, as a mere number cruncher. "His job is not to delivereducation to the kids," Kvitek claims. "All he says is, you have seats."
Despite the district's resistance, Evergreen parents have gained influence in high places. In November, they helped elect their neighbor, Frank Biehl, to the school board. He promises to build a new high school.
They're also represented on the San Jose Planning Commission and the Evergreen East Hills Vision Strategy task force by fellow resident Jim Zito.
At a November Planning Commission hearing, Zito guided much of the discussion and proposed every motion in favor of the Evergreen cause. The parents say the proposed development, encompassing 542 acres, will eat up the last available chunk of land in the area big enough for a high school campus.
So the commission made an official recommendation to city officials that 40 acres in the EEHVS development project be reserved for a high school. The EEHVS task force, which Zito also belongs to, made a similar resolution in October.
In the end, however, these suggestions carry no weight without the school board's backing. "At this point, I'm sure not how far we can go, because the district hasn't said it needs a new school," explains Mena from the San Jose Planning Department. The city's position is silent because it has no authority over educational planning.
Board president Herrera says the district isn't bargaining with the developers for land because they have already offered $30 million in impact fees to compensate for projected population growth—more than twice the minimum the district is entitled to under state law.
Kvitek says the district is selling itself short and should demand at least 40 acres from the developers in addition to the impact fees. He also questions the school board's integrity because trustee George Shirakawa works as a lobbyist for one of the EEHVS developers.
Over the past four years, Shirakawa has received $20,000 in campaign contributions from developers. He did not return Metro's calls for this story.
But Herrera says Shirakawa had no involvement in making decisions related to the Evergreen project. "George is purer than Caesar's wife in this matter," he adds.
"The Evergreen parents are oversimplifying the issue," Herrera continues. "They want to engage in a titanic battle, but the district just can't do something like that."
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