An enormous valley oak tree that's become a flashpoint for opposition to the construction planned for Oak Knoll School may be off the chopping block, according to Menlo Park City School District officials. But whether saving a tree will quell concerns about the reconfigured campus remains to be seen.
People on both sides of the $15 million Oak Knoll project are set to converge on the school board meeting on Thursday, May 8, in the K-5 school's multi-use room. At the meeting, which starts at 7 p.m., the school board is expected to approve an environmental study that will allow the construction to begin this summer.
The project includes removing the 14 portable buildings on campus, constructing a two-story classroom building, modernizing existing classrooms and adding a two-story multi-purpose building at the north end of the school near Oak Avenue. Parking areas and the pick-up/drop-off-lane would also be reconfigured.
Some neighbors say they have been left out of the planning process and are increasingly vociferous in their criticism of aspects of the plan. Principal David Ackerman sent out a call-to-arms letter to school parents last week, urging them to support the school board by attending the meeting.
Ram Duriseti, a nearby homeowner, objected to being labeled an "opponent" and, in a letter to the Menlo Park City Council, urged city officials to stand with neighbors in questioning the Oak Knoll plan and its environmental study, called a negative declaration.
Oak tree saved?
Superintendent Ken Ranella told The Almanac that district staff is working on a proposal to preserve the giant oak tree by reducing parking spaces in a new faculty lot to be built off Oak Avenue. Currently, the tree shades a playground and is visible from the school's frontage.
The reconfigured parking lot would go from 22 spaces down to 12, a plan that requires school board approval, Mr. Ranella said. District staff is also working on ways to save other large trees along the perimeter of the planned athletic field, he said.
"It depends on the values of the community. Do we save trees, or maximize the field space?" he said.
Construction at Oak Knoll is slated to begin this summer and continue through fall of 2010. For the district, there's a lot riding on that timeline: in an environment of escalating construction costs, getting the project done on budget means getting it done on schedule, said school board president Bruce Ives.
District officials said that the remodeled campus would improve traffic flow and parking at the school, improve pedestrian sight-lines at a relocated crosswalk, and add more space for bicycle parking.
John Fox, a Menlo Park bicycle commissioner and member of the team that designed the school's Safe Routes to School plan, said the district has virtually ignored how children who walk and bike to school will be affected by the new campus design.
"When you look at the studies that have been done, no one is walking or biking in [the school district's view," he said. "Everyone is driving, because these surveys and studies only look at automobiles."