FREMONT -- Builders of the Patterson Ranch subdivision are expected to break ground next year, but school district officials fret that its 500 new homes will add more students than nearby schools can handle, worsening the Ardenwood neighborhood schools' already major overcrowding problem.
"Our goal is to provide neighborhood school seats for kids, so that they can attend school close to where they live, as opposed to being shipped across town," said Fremont school superintendent James Morris. "We don't want to tell families that their children have to go to different schools."
But that's exactly what might happen to families who will buy homes in Patterson Ranch, where the nearest elementary schools already are overflowing. The district's newest K-12 campus was built a quarter-century ago.
Student enrollment in the district's 41 schools is 33,000, and steadily rising. Last year alone, Fremont Unified increased by 600 students, district officials said. That was a sharp spike from the past half decade, when enrollment grew 300 students each year. Rising enrollment can be "a good problem," Morris said, but it also poses severe challenges to North Fremont parents.
The overcrowding, along with the impending Patterson Ranch development, prompted the school board to take the "unprecedented action of saying we're not going to assign (Patterson Ranch) to a school," Morris said. "We're going to place those students wherever there is space in the city."
Forest Park and Ardenwood elementary schools -- the campuses closest to Patterson Ranch -- have a combined capacity of 1,900 seats, falling far short of the 2,200 students now living in the area, Morris said. That has forced the district to send extra 300 students to the next-closest elementary schools: Warwick, Patterson, Oliveira and Brookvale.
These are hardly long-term remedies. The school board recently voted to lower the student-teacher ratio from 30-1 to 24-1, in grades K-3, over the next seven years. Smaller class sizes improve learning, but likely will exacerbate Fremont's overcrowding issue, district officials said. American High, the high school closest to Ardenwood's campuses, is operating at more than 90 percent capacity and it's a matter of time before it hits its limit, Morris said. At campuses on the verge of overcrowding, the school district will add portable classrooms where necessary, he said.
The proposed housing development is owned by the Patterson family, who have controlled ranch land in the area since the 1850s, when patriarch George Washington Patterson purchased his first parcel. In 2010, the Patterson Ranch project was approved for 500 single-family residences to be built on 80 acres east of Ardenwood Boulevard, and bounded by Paseo Padre Parkway, Alameda Creek and railroad tracks.
To cover the development's impacts on Fremont schools, the Pattersons are required to pay about $6 million to the district. But that sum won't come close to covering the $22 million construction tab for a new elementary school to absorb the students the project will generate, Morris said. Forest Park Elementary is Fremont's most recently built K-12 campus. It was constructed in 1988, for about $3 million, Morris said.
Jana Sokale -- a member of Friends of Coyote Hills, a grass roots group that has worked to lessen Patterson Ranch's environmental impacts -- sharply criticized the large disparity between the developer fees and the cost of the district's needs.
"It's part of a larger problem, in that we're allowing private developers to build and reap profit without fully floating the cost of all the externalities of their development," said Sokale.
Charles "Chop" Keenan, a Palo Alto developer representing the Patterson family, said the recession delayed the housing development's progress. But now that the economy is perking up, Keenan said that ground likely will be broken next spring and site preparation, which could take up to 18 months, will follow.
Over the years, the Pattersons and their representatives have had talks with the school district about providing land or building a new campus. Patterson Ranch's initial plans called for 1,500 homes and a new elementary school, but when the Pattersons reduced the scale of the project because of the recession and pressure from Friends of Coyote Hills, they also scrapped plans for the school.
"There has been talk by the developer about parcels of land for a new school," Morris said. "But there has been no formal offer to the district, saying, 'Hey, we'd like to do this.'"
Morris said the school district has not had substantive discussions with Fremont staff or council members about the project since its approval in 2010.
Mayor Bill Harrison acknowledges that the overcrowding problem must be addressed. He noted that more housing is in the works near the proposed mixed-use Warm Springs development, which would include 3,000 residences on the southern end of town. "Maybe we can use the traction from working together on Warm Springs to address the overcrowding problem in the north Fremont area," he said. "I'm happy to work with the school district and the developer to find a solution out there."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.