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Sequoia district officials prepare to face the music

High school district may ask voters to approve $225 million bond measure for new facilities.

High school cafeteria. The words go together like pepperoni pizza or grilled cheese sandwich. And yet in the four comprehensive schools in the Sequoia Union High School District, including Menlo-Atherton and Woodside, there are no cafeterias. Students can get warmed-up meals delivered from the district's kitchen in Redwood City, but they eat them in multi-use rooms or classrooms or outside -- except when it rains.

Maybe designating a place for eating is not a priority at these Silicon Valley institutions of learning. Cafeterias were not among the projects recommended in a tentative $225 million capital-spending package. Facing projections of a surge in enrollment of at least 22 percent by the 2020-21 school year, the Sequoia board on Jan. 22 discussed a report, four months in the making, that sketched out plans to increase physical capacity at each campus.

A poll is underway to gauge voter support for a tax increase.

The $225 million figure and the restructuring it would pay for are the work of a task force of district volunteers who have been meeting bi-weekly since September. With the district saying that capital reserves are under $9 million, the board is considering putting a bond measure before the voters, either in November or in June -- preferred, board members said, because turnout tends to be lower.

Over the next six years, M-A's enrollment is expected to grow by as much as 600 students, and Woodside's by as much as 400. In community meetings in 2013, district officials discussed two-story classrooms, two new schools for 300 to 400 students each, and student redistribution an idea that went nowhere as parents argued that intact middle school cohorts were more important than smaller student bodies. M-A will include all of the Las Lomitas, Menlo Park City and Ravenswood City elementary districts.

If district voters were to approve a $225 million bond measure, about $84 million would go to facilities at existing comprehensive high schools. M-A would get $29 million to add 17 regular classrooms and two classrooms for science, one for chemistry and two for performing arts or career technical education. Woodside would get $9 million to do the same, but with 10 regular classrooms and one each of the others.

Many one-story classrooms would gain a story. There would be more bathrooms, more locker rooms, more food-service areas, and larger facilities for administrative, counseling and students services.

The two small schools -- to ease enrollment pressure on the main campuses -- are projected to cost $62.4 million for land and construction. Another $12.6 million would build new gyms at the East Palo Alto Academy and Redwood High School, a "continuation school" that gives students at risk of not completing their coursework another chance at a diploma.

Another $66.4 million would go to other expenses, including a five-year maintenance program, classroom furniture, technology upgrades and energy efficiency projects.

On Feb. 12, the board will consider a report analyzing what size bond measure voters might support. One proposal exceeds $225 million, said Sarah Stern-Benoit, a partner at TBWB Strategies, a San Francisco consulting firm specializing in "public finance ballot measures (that support) programs, services and facilities."

If the board opts for the election on June 3, it leaves just weeks -- until March 7 -- to come up with the crucial 75-word ballot statement and deliver a resolution to the San Mateo County Elections Office. A campaign would follow.

A balancing act

Board member Chris Thomsen had questions. Was $225 million a top-down calculation in which projects were fitted within a predetermined number? Or was it bottom-up, derived by cataloging the needs of each campus? Would the construction simply accommodate more students or also create better learning spaces? What if cost projections for the new schools are low and lead to underfunding other elements of the program?

"I'd like to have the confidence that $225 (million) is enough for what we want to do," Mr. Thomsen said.

The report could have presented a $430 million program, said Enrique Navas, the district's chief financial officer. "We can keep on going, but I think that the true test is what comes back from our polling," he said. A Santa Clara County high school district is spending $30 million on a student union, he said. "(Are cafeterias) something we should provide for our students? I would argue 'Yes.'"

"What (Mr. Thomsen) is talking about, that's what's going to make this exciting to our community," said board member Carrie DuBois.

"Asking the community for money is a balancing act," said member Olivia Martinez, a veteran of at least four Sequoia district bond campaigns. The board, she said, should start talking about the district's past fiscal prudence.

Board president and task force member Allen Weiner noted that $225 million, with time pressing, was a combination of top-down and bottom-up analysis.

"It doesn't sound like it's grounded in anything factual," Mr. Thomsen said.

The district should thoroughly inform the public about the situation, board member Alan Sarver said. The district's to-do list includes attracting students to the two new small schools, finding affordable sites for those schools, attending to alternative programs such as Redwood High, and implementing Common Core standards, including the new professional development and technology elements.

No hot water

Staff employed in the district added a facts-on-the-ground dimension.

M-A physics teacher Peter Caryotakis asked about East Palo Alto students and whether they would have school buses available. And new thermostats? "We sit in rooms and roast all day because the district controls the heat," he said. M-A teachers wanted two-story buildings a decade ago, he added. "As things go through the district process, teachers' views get lost."

Redwood High Principal Miguel Rodriguez wondered aloud about the meaning of equitable. Redwood has no computer lab, no library, no multi-purpose room, no art or multi-media rooms, no counseling spaces and no hot water, Mr. Rodriguez said. "How do you make (the curriculum) rigorous and engaging?" he asked. "Whenever you need me to bounce ideas off, I'm available."

Related story: School board schooled on running bond election.

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