Menlo Park City School District delayed its decision on opening a new elementary school at the O'Connor campus as officials mull a range of unpleasant options for dealing with an projected surge in student enrollment -- including suspending the Tinsley transfer program that allows minority students in East Palo Alto's Ravenswood district to attend Menlo Park district schools.
Opening a fourth elementary school campus would alleviate the space crunch, but is a costly solution in a time of shrinking education revenues. And, those same projections show that enrollment will taper off and drop back down to the current level of about 1,850 K-5 students by 2019.
For the most part, all the options are unpleasant, the financial outlook isn't promising, and the actual number of future students is unknown.
"I love finding win-wins, and this just feels like a lose-lose (situation)," said board member Laura Rich.
Superintendent Ken Ranella outlined costs, challenges and a couple of new options to the board at its Dec. 8 meeting. One option that Mr. Ranella presented would eliminate the nearly 150 transfer students from outside the district during peak enrollment years, which would alleviate the need for portables or a new elementary school, he said.
"It's just an option, it's my last option that I put on the page," Mr. Ranella told the board.
It's a problematic option, to say the least. Currently, 122 of the 145 interdistrict transfer students are part of the Tinsley program. The remaining transfer students are the children of Menlo Park district faculty and staff.
The Tinsley voluntary transfer program resulted from a 1986 court settlement over a desegregation lawsuit. It requires the Menlo Park district to accept 24 new students every year from the Ravenswood district, which encompasses East Palo Alto and Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood, according to Peter Burchyns, spokesman for the San Mateo County Office of Education.
Ravenswood students may apply to attend school in Menlo Park or a half-dozen other districts, including Palo Alto Unified, Las Lomitas, Portola Valley and Woodside. Once accepted, a Tinsley transfer student is guaranteed a place in the new district through eighth grade.
Turning away Tinsley students requires permission from a San Mateo County Superior Court judge, and is something no other district has done, said Mr. Burchyns.
Mr. Ranella said he is discussing suspending Tinsley transfers with the county superintendent of schools, and believes it would be legal. The court order says that a district does not have to add facilities or drop any element of its curriculum as a result of enrolling Tinsley students, Mr. Ranella said.
Board members said they'd like Mr. Ranella to explore the idea further, although board member Mark Box said the option raises questions not just about the district's commitment to support children from Ravenswood but also the commitment to its own students to increase diversity in the schools.
"We have a very legitimate problem," said Jeff Child, the newly selected board president. "I'd like to see where it comes back on that (Tinsley) issue."
The district is facing a January deadline to notify the O'Connor site's tenants, the private German-American International School, of a decision on its lease. The lease expires in 2011 and unless the board notifies GAIS in January, the lease will automatically renew for five more years.
Despite doubts about the enrollment projections -- several board members said they don't think it will go as high as forecast -- district officials want to keep their options open.
"If we extend (the lease) for five years, then we're out to 2017, and that's a hell of a gamble," said Mr. Ranella.
Instead, the board directed Mr. Ranella to pursue talks with the GAIS about a new lease arrangement that would allow either party to opt out with a 14- or 16-month notice. Board members said they'd like to wait and see what the incoming kindergarten numbers look like when enrollment starts in February. The past two years have seen a bumper crop of new kindergarteners, far exceeding demographic projections.
"I'm not sure if we're being strategic or if we're kicking the can down the road," commented Mr. Ranella.
The financial considerations weighed heavily on board members. The small O'Connor campus could accommodate no more than 250 children and would require an estimated $10 million to bring it up to par with the rest of the district's elementary schools. Running a new school would cost the district about $650,000 a year, which includes lost rental income and the cost of hiring administrators and staff. That number does not include teacher salaries, a cost the district would incur regardless of the school site.
The high price tag, coupled with the undesirable location of O'Connor -- it's on the remote edge of the district in Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood -- led several board members to wonder if money wouldn't be better spent by selling O'Connor to the GAIS and purchasing a new, more centrally located property for a school.
Hans-Peter Metzger, the head of the German-American International School, said his school could be interested in purchasing the campus.
"We're not making an offer right now, but it's something we at the school would entertain," he told The Almanac. "We've been here almost 20 years and we like where we are."
In the meantime, the GAIS has been scouting new locations, although the school community would hate to move, he said. He said he understands the Menlo Park district's difficult position.
Cheaper, but equally unpalatable options include parking portable classroom trailers on school campuses, or boosting class sizes rather than adding classrooms.
Oak Knoll principal David Ackerman said he'd rather see class sizes grow a bit than take up part of the school's new athletic field with portables. The district isn't blessed with an abundance of land, and construction projects at Oak Knoll, Encinal and Hillview schools include two-story classroom buildings in order to maximize playground and field space.
Terry Thygesen, a former board member who is part of the advisory committee that worked with Mr. Ranella on his report, encouraged the board to seek a parcel tax rather than cut the budget by eliminating programs or allowing the already large elementary schools to continue to grow.
"The schools are really the heart of the community," she said. "Before we degrade things, let's give the community a chance to step up."
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