Ah, the Bentley School. It’s this really expensive private school that has an elementary and middle school on the Oakland/Berkeley border kind of near the Claremont Hotel and a high school in Lafayette. I think I worked at catering job for an event at their Lafayette campus like six years ago. They had some kind of lamb with pomegranate thing. And pistachio ice cream for dessert. Beyond that, I don’t really know anything about them.
Except that that issues relating to their non-expansion seem to pop up on Planning Commission agendas an awful lot. And whenever they do, the item always takes a really long time. But there are an awful lot of issues that go on in the City, and I actually follow a couple of times as many of them as I ever get a chance to write about, but time is precious and there are some that I just can’t bring myself to pay attention to.
The ones I tend to ignore mostly tend to have these insanely long backstories and then every time there’s a discussion, everyone is like, really emotional about it, and my reaction is usually something along the lines of “Okay, this seems like a good time to leave and go get a drink.” Bingo is one of those things (though I believe that issue has finally been settled?). That tying up your dog outside a store controversy from a few years ago was another. And so is the Bentley School.
But then Sunday afternoon, I was watching last Wednesday’s Planning Commission (PDF) so I could write for you guys about these requirements they want to make (PDF) for anyone to tear down an old building. And once that item was over, I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to let the movie keep playing and hear about this Bentley School thing while I reorganized my bookshelves. And to my total shock, it turned out to actually be pretty fascinating.
So like I said, I have not been following this at all for the (apparently) like 5 years it’s been in front of the Planning Commission. And as fascinating as I found the discussion, I don’t care about it enough to spend weeks trying to get up to speed. So here’s a brief summary of the situation as I understand it.
Bentley School Background
Back in 1969, the Bentley School got a conditional use permit that allowed them to operate their K-9 school at this location with 200 students, but only operate between 7 AM at 3 PM and not have any events on the evenings and weekends. This school was clearly controversial even back then, cause the permit got appealed to the City Council. (The appeal lost.)
This is where the school is:
So between 1969 and now, the school built a number of new classrooms and expanded some classrooms and other facilities, and in the process, the number of students somehow managed to creep from the permitted 200 to 352 and the school started doing all these after-school activities and holding events at night and on weekends. And somehow nobody noticed that this was totally not allowed. Oops!
Until 2004. Then in 2004, after the Bentley School suddenly discovered that they were totally out of compliance, they came back to the City to ask for a new permit that would let them have 360 students, after school programs, after school child care, summer school, and events at night and on the weekend. The neighbors didn’t like that very much.
I’ll skip over all those debates, and just fast forward to the conclusion, which is that many hearings later, on October 21st, 2009, Bentley School finally got their permit. It came with a long list of conditions.
Bentley School does not like their conditions
One of those conditions was that they cap the number of staff they had on that campus at the current level and not add any more. Another condition was that they move those members of their administrative staff whose work was not specific to this campus off campus, like, for example, to their Lafayette school.
So now, the Bentley School has decided that they can’t move these administrators off campus after all. Why? Because they need them for traffic monitoring during pick-up and drop-off periods for the school. The administrators, you see, all have extensive training in traffic management (as opposed to the teachers, who are trained only in teaching and apparently do not have room in their heads for learning how to make sure children don’t bolt into traffic).
And that’s just day to day safety. What if there’s a fire? Or an earthquake? Well, the school got themselves an emergency preparedness consultant to help their emergency planning, and he too has determined that having these administrators on campus is absolutely essential to the safety of the children in an emergency. “There is no question that the effectiveness of the school’s ability to respond to an emergency would be reduced if there were fewer administrators and support staff on campus.”
Now, as I’m sure you can imagine, the neighbors do not like this idea at all. From a letter sent by Neighbors for Safety in Hiller Highlands to the City regarding the Bentley School’s proposal to change their conditions:
As you know, all of these issues were emotionally charged and hotly contested over five years and an EIR. Major concessions were requested with the subject conditions finally agreed upon. These conditions, as set forth as part of the CUP, were specifically agreed to by Bentley. These conditions were the product of careful negotiation, consideration, and mediation. They were not to be used as a strategy for obtaining the CUP and then attempting to negotiate around the agreed upon conditions. It appears that such a tactic is being attempted at this time. Such conduct must not be condoned.
Now, like I said before, I have not followed this issue at all, and I don’t spend a whole lot of time in Hiller Highlands, so I don’t really know all the background details, and I don’t have particularly strong feelings either way. As far as I can tell, this controversy, like pretty much every other debate in Oakland, is all about traffic and parking. Regular readers probably know that I tend not to be terribly sympathetic when people whine about parking. But the comment in favor of Bentley School was so over the top, it bordered on ridiculous. “Our beloved administrators!” Seriously, who talks like that?
Obviously, nobody wants to make light of traffic and earthquake safety. But a deal’s a deal, and if these beloved administrators were just so damn essential to keeping the students safe, it seems like maybe someone from the Bentley School would have said something about how it would be a problem, before they agreed to move them. So by the end of public comment, my conclusion was that the Bentley School is hella shady, and this earthquake scare excuse seems cooked up.
Planning Commission response
The Commission did not seem to be buying it much more than I did. Commissioner Sandra Galvez was like “So, back when you were actually planning on moving all this staff, what were you going to do about earthquakes and traffic monitoring then?” She basically did not get an answer. Commissioner Doug Boxer was a little more direct, like, are you seriously here telling me that if I don’t agree to change the conditions you agreed to six months ago that took five years to arrive at, and then some kid gets hit by a car, it’s my fault? Two other Commissioners were no kinder, and basically both said they thought, like me, that the Bentley School is full of shit. They used nicer words, of course. And everyone wanted to know, if this safety thing was so important, why is it only coming up now?
So, then I was talking to a friend about it, and they were totally on the school’s side. They said that the traffic problems in the neighborhood aren’t the school’s fault, Bentley School is one of the best schools in Oakland, that schools in general should be allowed to expand if they want or need to, because education is important, and that this thing the City dictating how many and what kind of employees a business is allowed to have is just as shady, if not more so, than Bentley School’s new earthquake excuse. And of course, that there’s no reason to think that just because an application was stuck in planning hell for five years, it’s the project sponsor’s fault.
All reasonable points. I also think the idea of the City saying how much and what type of staff the school is allowed is a suspicious thing to do. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like the school did much in the way of giving the City any choice in the matter. I mean, “Oh, we’re sorry our school is nearly twice the size you said it could be. We need a new permit with all these things that weren’t allowed before just to continue our operations. If you deny it, you will rob all these children of a quality education. Why do you hate America?” puts the City in a really bad position. What are they supposed to do, tell the school they have to close? It seems to me, the school made a mess by not following the rules in the first place, so if the City has to make some demands that would be kind of extreme under normal circumstances in order to clean it up, well, that’s Bentley School’s fault.
I pointed out to my friend that I felt more justified in my suspicion of the school based on the fact that Planning Commissioners who tend to be pretty friendly to project applicants came pretty damn close to just calling the school huge liars. (Response from one of the school people “I agree, it doesn’t sound plausible, but…”) My friend’s response? “Well, they’re Democrats. They probably don’t like private schools.” That seemed a little paranoid to me.
So, what to do about it? On the one hand, this whole discussion is about only 6 employees, one of whom actually lives at the school. So I have a hard time seeing how five extra employees coming to the school every day is going to make any significant difference on the traffic at a school where 360 kids are getting dropped off and picked up every day. And obviously, nobody wants the kids to die in an earthquake because there aren’t enough beloved administrators to lead them to safety.
On the other hand, Bentley School said they would do this. They didn’t object to this aspect of their conditions when they agreed. It took a ridiculously long time to reach that agreement. If we’re going to just run around and changing permit conditions a few months after they’re approved, why should anyone concerned about any project in the future feel like they are negotiating in good faith when trying to come up with something mutually tolerable? How are people supposed to have any confidence that conditions will be complied with?
In the end, the Commission decided to delay the issue of whether the administrators should be moved until the school had completed their traffic plan, since the real issue is the number of trips generated more so than the number of people physically at the school. So for now they get to keep working there, but won’t be allowed to park at the school or on Hiller Drive.
I’m curious what readers think of the situation. Thoughts?