We were fortunate indeed to have you spend two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars considering the city we live in and love as the future home of CSUS Middle School. Like you, we love our small city’s beautiful open spaces, our historic commitment to education our bucolic tree-lined streets and our friendly neighbors – as the running joke goes – who are continually searching for Belmont’s downtown. Our city must have seemed like an ideal environment for the world-class education your school provides.
At tonight’s City Council meeting, just as happened a month ago, we heard from passionate voices both in favor and opposed to the CSUS project. The democratic process was in full swing. Unfortunately, paraphrasing Winston Churchill, democracy remains the worst form of government (except for all the others). CSUS’s denied opportunity to purchase, improve and instruct children in the long-vacant Davis Drive property was a catastrophic failure of Belmont leadership. This decision, unless reconsidered, will reverberate negatively for years in Belmont.
CSUS leaders, teachers, parents and especially children, I want to personally apologize to you on behalf of our city and on behalf of our elected and appointed city leaders. Our leaders are well-intentioned and have Belmont’s best interests in mind. They really do. Without exception, they are all my friends and/or former colleagues from my days serving on the Belmont Planning Commission, as president of Belmont’s Central Neighborhood Assn., and from working in various groups and on projects during the 12 years I’ve lived here. They appreciate the respectful opinion of each of us. But their respect and diligence is not the same as being right. The same can be said for those who opposed this project. There is nothing healthier to our city than having thousands of residents observing our city government deciding a complex issue. I applaud all of those, including those with whom I disagree, who added their voice and/or their writing to this important decision. This is as it should be. Bravo Belmont!
Those who’ve studied this issue closely know that this project is revenue neutral, that this is a lovely, state-of-the-art building design, that this school has consistently ranked as one of the top 50 schools in the country (the Wall Street Journal said “in the world” but that platitude seems overdone to this reader) and that the CSUS leadership has been expert in reaching out to the community with open ears, working tirelessly to constructively mitigate the concerns of all those opposed. In the decade that I’ve been closely watching Planning Commission and City Council meetings, I’ve never seen such a professional and competent applicant as the CSUS Head, Amy C. Richards. In my thinking, this speaks to the quality that CSUS would bring as our long-term future neighbor.
Perhaps worst of all for our community, this process and decision sends a chilling message to future business applicants and to our existing quality schools: NDNU, Merry Moppet, Charles Armstrong, NDHS and all the others. Was the NDNU Koret field noise debacle not proof enough of an inherent hostility that has developed here towards our private schools? How about the denial of Charles Armstrong’s expansion plans from a few years back? It would serve Belmont well to find a way to approve one of the big school projects that come up. NDNU – are you interpreting this as, “Beware as you seek to renovate Ralston Hall – let tonight’s outcome be yet another lesson to you!”? At some point we have to stop blaming the applicants. The evidence has mounted that our leaders’ affection for supporting any expansion of private education may have reached its limits.
And most ashamedly CSUS, there are a few residents among us who’ve told me they feel that parents and students driving past the world-class CSUS en route to Ralston Middle or other “inferior” institutions would “feel bad” since their school is not as posh and highly regarded nationally. Using this rationale, perhaps we should pity Menlo College students? Imagine their shame as they drive past Stanford. Boston College as they drive past Harvard? Holy class-warfare Batman…
Tonight we thoroughly explored the opposite of cliché “the rising tide lifts all boats”. We had a chance to bring an “Ivy League” middle school into our city and to bring the finest architecture since the Belmont Library into our midst. CSUS, your administration has pledged both one-time and ongoing financial support to the City. You’ve pledged tutorial and even teacher instructional support to our existing public schools. You have pledged use of your sports fields. You have adjusted your school hours particularly early to avoid traffic tie-ups on Ralston. You have covered your pool and toned down your playing field whistles. You have listened and respectfully reacted to every opponent – and have won over many, many who were once naysayers – myself included.
I should add that I don’t think my opinion could have moved the needle for this City Council, and this was not a project I was able to focus on and advocate for until late in the game. I deserve any criticism that comes my way labeling me a “Monday morning quarterback”. Guilty as charged.
My hope for you, CSUS, and for our lovely city, is that you will come back to the table. These good people we’ve chosen to lead our city don’t always get it right the first time. And if reconsidering your proposal falls on deaf ears, there will be at least one new City Council member in 13 months, not to mention that this issue can get additional broad scrutiny and study during the 2013 election year. You can prevail. It’s closer than you think.
In the meantime, by all means please seek to satisfy nearby property owner Mike Cuneen. He has a reputation as a fair and considerate man. And work at building further bridges with our public school system and school board. You might have sailed through tonight if our public BRSSD was not on the financial ropes and struggling to avoid catastrophic failure. Keep reaching out to them!
Please also seek to explore and support ways to mitigate and even help solve the single issue that drew the greatest critiques from your opponents – Ralston traffic. A creative plan to band with other schools and partially fund a “Ralston Runner” shuttle bus service could benefit you while actually solving the never ending Ralston traffic debacle. Prediction? Help us find a way to solve Ralston’s traffic bottlenecks and there will be lines of grateful Belmont residents picketing in front of City Hall until you are gratefully begged to locate in our fine city. We Belmont residents should in turn ask ourselves why our leaders have not already created such a shuttle from the panoply of available federal, state and local transportation funds.
Finally, as your chin hangs low tonight and you consider your best options moving forward, remember that we have a richness of schools in Belmont for a reason. Your instincts were right and your planning was (nearly) flawless. By sticking to it, overcoming a few remaining objections and seeing this through on a second attempt, you’ll set a terrific example for your students. Even my public school going six-year-old was taught by her public school alumni parents that “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Here’s hoping that you will…
David Long is President of (and seeking a successor to) the Central Neighborhood Assn. and is a former Belmont Planning Commissioner who has zero ties to