Cover Story - January 9, 2008

Election marks course correction for schools

Feb. 5 bond measure puts career education and technology upgrades in the balance

by David Boyce

Setting up a classroom for an economics or history class isn't complicated. Find a room with good lighting and ventilation and a door that closes, bring in some chairs and writing surfaces for the students and a board for the teacher to write on and you're ready to go.

Results may vary if that same classroom is used to teach biotechnology or how to work a piece of sheet metal or build a kitchen cabinet. Without a well-equipped shop, it's missing the vital hands-on experience that students expect and need.

Shop classes have faded in importance in high schools, but a new proposal by administrators in the Sequoia Union High School District could reinvigorate career training in high school — and open it up to any interested students, including kids headed to college.

A $165 million bond measure, in which a major priority would be facilities for a renewed career technical education program in district high schools, goes before voters on Feb. 5 as Measure J. The measure requires a 55 percent majority to pass.

The driving issues are the looming retirement of baby boomers now in the trades and preparing students for a broadly competitive global economy, said Ed LaVigne, the Sequoia district's assistant superintendent for administrative services. "What we're trying to do is cover the waterfront that allows our kids to become fully engaged in their learning."

The shop class, with its emphasis on manual skills in a three-dimensional world, seems of another era, an artifact of the decades after World War II when the United States was a manufacturing powerhouse and a high school graduate could find a job in skilled labor that would earn a middle-class income.

Industrial labor in the United States has been pummeled over the last 20 years as a service economy arose and manufacturers automated and moved their operations to low-wage regions such as Asia and Latin America.

Such trends may have been the force behind a public high school push to encourage all students to go to college. The statistics have been notably stubborn. In 1993, 33 percent of graduates statewide were eligible for admission to California public universities, according to state Department of Education data. In 2006, 35 percent were eligible.

(At Woodside High School over that same period, the eligibility numbers were 45 percent and 44 percent, and at Menlo-Atherton High, 60 percent and 53 percent.)

What's been happening to those high school graduates not headed for college? Many California counties, through their offices of education, offer so-called Regional Occupational Programs, where training can be found for positions in business offices, the health care industry, information technology, and the trade and service unions.

San Mateo County's ROP program would increase its collaboration with the Sequoia district if voters approve the bond measure.

As required by state law, a citizens committee would ensure that funds are spent on the projects listed in the ballot measure. Among the other priorities for the money: a 10-year, $10 million fund to upgrade technology in the district; improvements to energy and physical infrastructures; and a new building for East Palo Alto Academy High School, a four-year charter school operated by Stanford University.

The school building might run $12.5 million, plus $2 million to $5 million to prepare the site, including entry and exit roads, a parking lot and sewer, water and utility connections, Mr. LaVigne said.

Poll shows support

A summer sampling of local voters seemed agreeable to a career-oriented program. In a district-funded telephone poll of 600 randomly chosen likely voters, the San Carlos-based Center for Community Opinion found majorities in support of new classrooms for career-oriented courses.

In the August poll, 57 percent of parents of middle- and high-school students said they were either very likely or somewhat likely to enroll a child in career-and-technical-education courses if they were offered. Among non-parents, 78 percent favored building facilities for such courses.

This "very explicit" local support reflects statewide and nationwide trends to address trade occupations, now held by baby-boomers, that are "the glue of society that makes stuff work," Mr. LaVigne said, adding: "When they retire, what's going to happen?"

"It's a huge bubble," said M-A shop and mechanical drawing teacher Mark Leeper in referring to coming retirements in home and commercial construction, energy infrastructure, and civil engineering work such as bridge retrofits.

"I think that's where we are really lacking in our system: preparing people for those kinds of jobs," he said.

The district's new career program could include one central facility and branch classrooms in all four comprehensive high schools, including Woodside and Menlo-Atherton, Mr. LaVigne said.

The 10-year fund for school technology upgrades won support from 76 percent of those polled, while 59 percent favored a new high school in East Palo Alto. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Measure J would add about $10 per $100,000 of assessed value to the annual tax paid by residential and commercial properties in the district, Superintendent Pat Gemma said.

When pollsters informed the voters of that tax impact, support for Measure J as a whole rose to 65 percent from 56 percent. Support dropped to 58 percent upon learning that this is the fourth bond measure in the Sequoia district since 1996.

The three previous measures — in 1996, 2001 and 2004 — totaled $203 million. Property owners now pay about $20 per $100,000 of assessed value to service that debt, Mr. LaVigne said.

Most tax increases in California require approval by two-thirds of voters. School bond measures like this one need only a 55 percent majority but require a citizens committee to oversee the spending and a list of proposed projects on the ballot measure.

The 55 percent threshold became law in 2001, but all three previous bond measures have passed by majorities greater than two-thirds.

The district's current bond indebtedness — excluding interest, which typically doubles the debt — is about $199 million, Mr. LaVigne said. The district, which is home to $51 billion in total assessed property value, is using about one third of its borrowing capacity and has a favorable AAA bond rating, he said.

Measure J's most vocal opponents — members of the local Libertarian party who signed a ballot argument in opposition — argue that the Sequoia district does not have to borrow more and that it could find the money were it not spending it on "ancillary staff."

Opponents complain that this fourth bond measure makes the same one-note pitch to voters as the previous three: to modernize facilities. They advocate a "pay-as-you-go discipline" rather than putting the district into more debt.

Local impacts

The project list accompanying Measure J has 58 bulleted items that include specific projects for each school plus general projects — and $165 million won't cover it all, Mr. LaVigne said in an interview.

Why $165 million? The desire to keep the tax increase to less than $10 per $100,000 of assessed value drove the calculations, he said.

The ballot language leaves maneuvering room. "Until all project costs and funding sources are known, the Board of Trustees cannot determine the amount of bond proceeds available to be spent on each project, nor guarantee that the bonds will provide sufficient funds to allow completion of all listed projects."

The Board of Trustees approved the list. To see it and arguments for and against Measure J, go to and click on "San Mateo County Ballot Measures."

At Woodside High, bond funds would repair and reconfigure the perimeter road — fractured and punctuated with ancient speed bumps — that runs behind the school.

The Churchill Road entrance has adjacent driveways to the school and the student parking lot. Redesigning that entrance is a priority to reduce the number of close calls between pedestrians and cars, Mr. LaVigne said.

Woodside would also get more semi-sheltered spaces for informal get-togethers, and new concession stands and restrooms at the football field, Mr. LaVigne said, adding: "The restrooms there are absolutely atrocious."

Menlo-Atherton High, too, is in need of more covered spaces for winter get-togethers, Mr. LaVigne said. Measure J would likely mean removing some walls adjacent to green spaces along the school's main artery, Pride Hall. The resulting atrium-like passages would extend outward and bring in natural light from clerestory windows, Mr. LaVigne said.

Pride Hall today is cramped, dark and unwelcome as a place to sit around and talk, he said. When the topic came up during project planning, Mr. LaVigne said his thought process went along the lines of "What's the opposite of dark and cramped"?

The bond money would also buy a new floor for M-A's main gym. The existing boards have been cupped by moisture, he said.

While the district has the funding to complete the new performing arts center, any shortfall would be covered by Measure J funding, he added.

Attending to careers

If voters approve Measure J, preparing the career-training element may take 12 to 18 months of planning, Mr. LaVigne said.

Interested teachers new to career classes would probably require training, perhaps under the guidance of trade unions, said Francisca Miranda, the deputy superintendent for educational services. The district is in contact with local unions, she said.

"It could be really good if there's a good solid partnership," M-A shop teacher Mark Leeper remarked. "If the district could take a lead with that, it could be really awesome."

Computers have changed everything, Ms. Miranda said. Kitchen cabinets today are designed on a computer before any wood cutting takes place, she noted, while today's automotive diagnostic technology was unheard of 20 years ago, and what was around 20 years ago is unheard of today.

Asked how a career-oriented program might change the schools, Ms. Miranda suggested that computers would become ubiquitous, perhaps allowing a shop class or any other kind of class at Woodside or M-A to connect via video link with a similar class with different facilities in Anchorage, or wherever.

"Lets not do pen pals anymore," she continued. "Why can't students from Afghanistan or Iraq (have) an online, live, up-to-the-moment experience" with Sequoia district students. "I would think there would be more of that."

Isn't there a danger of losing the benefits of a general education in pursuit of specialized career paths? "We're looking at a much more global way of preparing students," she said. "Why can't (experience in the world of work) not be done while they're in high school?"

The college-bound, including so-called gifted and talented education (GATE) students, also need to know how to use a hammer and understand the principles of a car's locomotion, she added. "Why does that have to be relegated to kids who are not going to college?"

Others school districts have been down this path and Sequoia district administrators are seeking them out. Administrators and trustees have traveled to Southern California and to Santa Clara County to talk and walk about.

Careers in the building trades, automotive technology electrical work, computer-aided design, computer animation and health care are some of what's available in Santa Clara County's Metropolitan Education District (MetroED) career education program.

Students in the program make ample use of reading, writing and math, Ms. Miranda noted. "They see the relevance of all those courses."

On a trip there recently, she and others from the Sequoia district watched events unfold at a mock hospital put on by the MetroED health care division. "I was just mesmerized," she said.

Possible impacts if Measure J passes on Feb. 5

• A reinvigorated career-training program open to all students in the Sequoia Union High School District, including Woodside and Menlo-Atherton students.

• A 10-year, $10-million fund that would reserve $1 million each year for upgrading technology in the schools and the district.

• Repaving and redesign of perimeter road and entrance at Woodside High plus new outdoor spaces protected against winter weather for informal gatherings.

• New wooden floor in M-A's main gym and airy atriums that would bring natural light to Pride Hall.

For more information on Measure J, go to or .


Posted by Allen, a resident of another community
on Jan 14, 2008 at 1:54 pm

Uncomfortable as it is for me to be on the same side of an issue as the Libertarians, I do think this bond issue needs more study and coverage.

First, I'd like a better handle on how the $203 million from the 4 previous bond issues (approved 1996, 2001, 2004) was spent. These bonds were issued for the same purpose - facilities upgrades, modernization, etc. There's not a lot of information available online - or at least not that I've found.

Second, I'd like more information on how they intend to spend $165 million and why it's that amount. From what I've read, $165 million was arrived at by figuring out the tax base and what voters would be willing to pay, not based on what's needed. This would also seem to be the case because the measure only lists a handful of specific projects, the others being very broad categories of spending.

Perhaps the thing that chafes me most is the arrogant way in which the "For" supporters dodged the issues raised by the "Against" camp in the Voter Information Pamphlet. Instead of clarifying or rebutting facts and figures, or giving us additional data that would show that the debt our district will be assuming is sustainable and consistent with other similar districts, they instead did a character assassination of the person who wrote the argument.

I think the sponsors of the bill are being sloppy because they think voters will automatically say 'yes' to education. Let's get more information and a higher standard of accountability before we saddle ourselves with a lot of debt.

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