Viewpoint - January 13, 2010

Editorial: School district buying time

The Menlo Park City School District can't catch a break. Four years after rising enrollment projections convinced trustees to mount a successful $90 million bond campaign to finance new and improved classrooms, the latest projections show that even more elementary school students than predicted will show up over the next 10 years and reach a middle school peak in 2016.

The bubble is expected to subside after that, but by 2019, the district is expected to have 2,815 students, 9 percent more than the 2,553 registered this school year. So now the district has to decide whether to find more capacity or accept the previously unthinkable solution of increasing class sizes in all grades.

It is a tough dilemma for school officials, who must choose from the following options presented by Superintendent Ken Ranella:

1. Open a fourth elementary campus by taking back the currently leased O'Connor School property in the Willows, or selling it and purchasing a new piece of property. Under that option, the annual loss of about $650,000 includes loss of rent from the German-American International School and the added expense of supervising a new school. It doesn't include the millions of dollars needed to renovate the O'Connor campus or build a new school.

2. Find a way to diplomatically drop the nearly 150 inter-district transfer students, including some 122 who are part of the Tinsley transfer program, a result of the 1986 court settlement of a desegregation lawsuit. Tinsley requires the Menlo Park district to accept 24 new students every year from the Ravenswood School District, which serves East Palo Alto and the Belle Haven neighborhood, in east Menlo Park.

3. Increase class sizes, install portables or use science labs and art rooms as classrooms.

Since property taxes, the district's primary revenue source, are not expected to grow much in the coming years, it would be difficult to financially support a new campus at O'Connor in two years, particularly with a major building project under way at Hillview Middle School. And cost estimates to upgrade O'Connor are $2 million or more. Others say it could take up to $10 million to do the job properly.

On the plus side: The district would gain a school site in the Willows neighborhood, where many new families are buying existing homes. And with a capacity of about 250 students, O'Connor could take up most of the added student load.

Perhaps the least palatable and unlikely solution suggested by Mr. Ranella is for the district to close the door on any inter-district transfer students, including 122 from the Tinsley program, as well as 20 or so who are the children of staff members.

Changing the desegregation ruling that covers a half-dozen other districts, including Portola Valley, Woodside and Palo Alto, would require the approval of a Superior Court judge. It also would be difficult for the district, one of the most affluent in the state, to make the case that it could not afford to accept students from East Palo Alto and Belle Haven.

Late last week, Mr. Ranella recommended an array of solutions for trustees to consider, anchored by a two-student increase in class size at all grade levels and the addition of four classrooms at Laurel Elementary School. He also recommended negotiating a shorter window to cancel the lease on O'Conner School in the Willows, but also suggested that a committee explore other, better-located sites to purchase. The Tinsley program would remain intact, although students leaving during first and second grade would not be replaced, as is the current policy.

Mr. Ranella's choice to slightly ramp up class size during the enrollment bubble, which is expected to peak in 2013 in elementary grades and in 2016 in middle school, is clearly a good solution. Adding four classrooms at Laurel may be more problematic, but doing so would accommodate 80 to 90 additional students.

The options trustees will consider this week are good ones that won't interfere with the district's overall performance. In the end, good teachers and bright students, the hallmark of the district, will adapt to the larger class sizes, which will remain lower than those at many other schools in the state. This, and the other measures recommended by Mr. Ranella, are a good mix to carry the district through the projected bubble of increased enrollment. The big question is whether the enrollment numbers will change again next year.


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