Despite the Menlo Park City School District's efforts to make some crowd-pleasing changes to the $15 million planned renovation of Oak Knoll elementary school in Menlo Park, a passionate and vocal mass of people gathered at the Thursday, May 8, board meeting, some to lobby for more changes, and others to urge the district to get started on the construction as soon as possible.
Minor modifications to the renovation plans were approved by the board on a 5-0 vote. The key change preserves three large oak trees -- one by reducing parking spaces in a new lot planned for Oak Avenue, and the other two by realigning the combined soccer/baseball field toward the back of the campus.
Six heritage-size trees will still have to be removed to accommodate the construction, including a large Joshua tree, said Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district's facility planner. The plan to remove any trees at all upset some people who spoke at the meeting.
"I understand that you have a very difficult job, but I hope you could find a way to work around the trees," said Carol Taggart, a retired Oak Knoll teacher.
One large oak tree at the center of campus that district officials planned to keep is now slated to come down. Arborist Walt Fuji said its surprisingly poor condition led him to reluctantly recommend its removal for safety reasons.
The planned project includes removing the 14 portable buildings on the K-5 school's campus, adding 10 classrooms and modernizing existing ones, and constructing a two-story multi-purpose building near Oak Avenue. Parking areas and the pick-up/drop-off-lane would also be reconfigured.
More than 40 people spoke at the meeting, many to express support for getting construction under way quickly.
"When I moved to California, I spent more (money) than my parents can fathom, only to send my children to school in a double-wide," said district parent Roy Sardinia. "Start digging that hole tomorrow."
Others, especially nearby residents, urged the district to slow down enough to consider bigger changes, like relocating the planned multi-use room to the other side of campus, and re-thinking the lengthy new drop-off lane.
"We've been characterized as opponents to construction, and that couldn't be further from the truth," said Ram Duriseti, who lives on Oak Knoll Lane. "It's not about yes or no to development, but (about) what kind of development."
Traffic flow and parking remained key areas of concern, particularly the exit from the planned drop-off lane. Currently, the school allows only a right turn out of its main parking lot on Oak Knoll Lane, but the plan calls for both right and left turns to be allowed.
"It may move the line (of cars) faster, but it will not make it safer for kids walking down the street," said Julie McGannon, a parent who lives on Oak Knoll Lane.
Superintendent Ken Ranella said restricting turns is an operational decision that can be made later, and doesn't affect the environmental review.
"I really believe we share one common interest -- to do what's best for our children," said board member Deborah Fitz. "As difficult, and, dare I say, contentious as this process has been, I have great faith in this plan."
Four and a half hours after the meeting started, the school board voted to adopt the environmental study, called a negative declaration, on a 4-0 vote, with Jeff Child abstaining. Mr. Child, who was on a business trip, arrived late and said he didn't feel right about voting when he hadn't heard all of the public comments.
With the approval of the negative declaration, construction on the Oak Knoll project is expected to start this fall, although work to modernize existing classrooms will begin when school gets out this summer, said Mr. Ranella.