Those are challenges confronting most of the state's public school districts, which are struggling to meet demanding federal and state academic standards while facing teacher layoffs and other threats to their ability to do what they're in business to do: teach kids.
The Menlo Park City School District has done well in meeting many of those challenges, judging by its high test scores, ability to renovate or rebuild its four campuses, and avoid layoffs in the classroom. But with the economic forecast less than cheery for the foreseeable future, the challenges aren't over.
Four candidates are hoping voters give them the chance to work toward meeting the challenges of the next four years by electing them to the Menlo Park district school board. There are three open seats, with only one incumbent, Laura Linkletter Rich, seeking re-election.
The board oversees the K-8 district, which includes Encinal, Laurel, Oak Knoll, and Hillview Middle schools.
The Almanac posed written questions to the candidates, pertaining to issues ranging from financial concerns and rising employee costs, to student achievement and the district's outreach to the community. What follows are summaries of their responses.
Laura Linkletter Rich
Ms. Rich is running for a fourth four-year term on the board. Her children are now adults, but she's not ready to call it quits with the district. "I feel a commitment to seeing some current projects through to completion," she said.
Among those projects, she said, is the rebuilding of Hillview, a project begun in late summer that will reconfigure the campus and create 80,000 square feet of facilities designed to accommodate the burgeoning enrollment.
In the 12 years she has served, she noted, the board has implemented class-size reduction, redesigned the academic program at Hillview, hired current Superintendent Ken Ranella, and made changes to the core instructional program that have led to "substantial increases in state testing results" — all while overseeing a 40 percent enrollment growth.
Curriculum. The goal of the district's educational program, Ms. Rich said, "is to teach our students to think critically and creatively, to know how to be independent learners, and to have the tools to approach problems as they experience them."
Beyond the core curriculum each school offers, she added, the district offers "a program of enrichment through art, music, PE, libraries, technology, and science gardens," programs that allow students "to experience their learning through meaningful and diverse venues that are not available to most public school students."
The district's standardized test scores consistently rank in the top 5 percent in the state, but those tests assess only mastery of the current year's content standards, she said. The district is "rolling out a series of assessments this year which will more accurately assess a student's abilities and challenges through a computer-based, adaptive test" that scores the student on a kindergarten-to-12th-grade continuum, she said.
Ms. Rich said she's been particularly interested in the integration of technology into the curriculum, saying the district has observed growth in student performance with the addition of an instructional technology coordinator.
One area Ms. Rich said the district needs to improve in is "how we are serving our children of color," an area the superintendent has been focusing on with the support of the board.
Growing enrollment, stagnant revenue. Voters earlier this year approved Measure C, a new, seven-year parcel tax to supplement a tax already in place. The new tax "will allow us to be fully staffed with classroom teachers at the time of peak enrollment," Ms. Rich said.
She noted, however, that each year the district and the board "need to balance the various needs of the district with projected revenues. We have shown a willingness to cut programs when necessary to keep the district fiscally healthy."
Communication. "Communication has been one of my primary interests and focuses during my tenure on the board," Ms. Rich said. She added that she created the first district website, and continues to maintain it, "to make sure that information was available and easily accessed."
She also spearheaded the effort to send out district and school communications electronically, she said.
Ms. Uribe-Ruiz said she will be a "voice to all families, regardless of their cultural and economic background," if elected to the board. Her perspective of "the importance of fair and appropriate education" for the district's children is shaped, in part, by her experiences as the mother of a son in the district's special education program.
Also, she said, "with more than 25 years in the banking industry, I can bring experience to help understand the budgeting process."
Ms. Uribe-Ruiz said one of her primary focuses as a board member would be improving communication — between teachers and parents, school sites and central administration, special education and general education, and the school board and the community.
"When changes that have an impact on daily student life are on the table, clear and concise communication to the community is critical," she said.
Curriculum. Even as the district's students continue to be among the state's highest performers on standardized tests, the board must always stay focused on the question of whether the district is meeting its mission of "inspiring high academic achievement among all students, serving their needs, challenging their minds, ... enriching their lives, and laying a foundation for success and participation in our democratic society and as citizens of the world," Ms. Uribe-Ruiz said.
The district, she said, needs to give teachers the tools to help students who are not doing as well as they should in achieving their potential. Those tools include specialist support, technology, information and training, she added.
Growing enrollment, stagnant revenue. "Menlo Park is a wonderful community, and as a result growing enrollment continues to be a major challenge for our school district," Ms. Uribe-Ruiz said.
She praises the efforts of the nonprofit education foundation that donates money to the schools, and voters for supporting parcel taxes. "That said, it is the responsibility of our board to challenge the administration to attain the most value for every educational dollar, and to develop contingency plans for maintaining quality services in the event that revenue from any source declines," she added.
The board, she said, needs to review areas such as district contracts with teachers, administrative staff, and vendors; and "overall service delivery models to determine possible efficiencies."
Communication. Ms. Uribe-Ruiz said that the current board and administration "adhere to the law regarding disclosure of important information such as the budget and board meeting minutes," but finding the information "is not always easy." She said she'd like to see more accessible information regarding "how children move from one grade to the next one, what a counselor can do to help your child, curriculum changes on the horizon, and what considerations and input are taking place for that change."
Ms. Lambert said her work as an active volunteer in three of the district's four schools, as a board member of the nonprofit school foundation, and as one of the leaders in the Measure C parcel tax campaign has given her "extensive knowledge of the district and a district-wide perspective."
Formerly a practicing attorney, she said her legal experience and training in mediation "will be an asset during negotiations with the unions" — a role all board members play.
Giving her another important perspective, she said, are her children's current school experiences: one in elementary school (in the Spanish immersion program at Encinal), one in middle school, and one in high school.
Curriculum. "I believe the district does a good job not only in preparing students for tests, but also preparing them to be critical thinkers and good citizens," Ms. Lambert said.
Saying that there's always room for improvement, she added: "The district could do more in teaching students research skills as well as how to write coherently and effectively communicate. ... Students should be shown how lessons learned in math and science apply to their everyday lives." Also, she said, "students should focus less on memorization and more on learning how to weigh evidence, reason and analyze data."
Additional focus on ensuring that more students pass algebra in middle school, and more language study, are also goals she supports.
There's still more work to be done for "students of color (and of) low socio-economic status," she said. "I would like to focus on helping these students avoid summer learning loss in addition to helping them achieve academically during the school year."
Growing enrollment, stagnant revenue. The passage of Measure C helped the district avoid significant layoffs and "for the most part, held class sizes steady," Ms. Lambert said, though she noted that class sizes "have increased slightly in some grades at some schools."
After a projected enrollment growth of another approximately 300 students over the next few years, enrollment is expected to decline, she said. And, she added, property tax revenue in the state is projected to recover in four to five years. Given that the parcel tax carries a seven-year term, those projections are encouraging.
If the projections don't pan out, however, "I would ask the superintendent to prepare a list of potential cuts and have a public forum to discuss (them) and help the board prioritize them," as the board did last year, she said.
The district needs to "take a critical look each year" at teacher contracts, considering "whether it is possible to reduce salaries, retirement and health benefits while still attracting and retaining the best teachers for our students," she said.
Communication. "Openness should be the default setting for the way the school board does business," Ms. Lambert said.
One way she would stay engaged with the school community as a board member is put her contact information on the district's website; currently, board members' names are listed, but not contact information.
She also would attend as many kindergarten orientations and new parent coffees at the schools as she could, and regularly attend PTO and site council meetings at whichever school she serves as board liaison to, she said.
A school board member from 2000 to 2008, Ms. Thygesen said the "great challenges ahead" for the schools, including enrollment growth in the face of decreased revenue, have prompted her to run for another term on the board.
Enrollment growth, she said, "is driving the need to expand Hillview, and careful management of this major construction project will be of major concern to the board, as it is essential to bring that project in on time and within budget."
She is a proponent of the district's "efforts to improve educational equity for all students, ensuring that we are doing all that we can to help each and every student reach his or her personal best," she said. "The district has made substantial improvements in recent years in closing the achievement gap for special education students ... . The current major focus is on improving achievement for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, an initiative that was started several years ago, but which is currently gaining a lot of steam."
Curriculum. Although standardized test scores in district schools are high, "the real focus of the district is on teaching students how to learn, using the state's content standards (as) the vehicle for selecting content for practice," Ms. Thygesen said. "It's the critical thinking about whatever subject matter is being studied that is what's most crucial."
She said she'd like to see more emphasis on achieving a higher level of algebra proficiency in eighth grade, "since this is such an important gatekeeper class to college preparatory classes in high school. Our district has been ahead of other high-performing districts in providing an advanced math track for students who are capable of becoming proficient in both algebra and geometry, and this should be continued."
Growing enrollment, stagnant revenue. "The district will need to maintain a very cautious financial posture for the foreseeable future to avoid further erosion of class sizes and services," Ms. Thygesen said, adding that the schools are "still in good shape" because of parcel tax revenue, strong property values, the foundation's support, "and a history of prudent financial management by the board."
Ms. Thygesen, who has a finance and strategic planning background, played a role in that management. When she was on the board, she was one of two board members who served on the district's long-range planning committee that guided the district toward the build-up of financial reserves, the refinancing of bonds to lower borrowing costs, and pre-funding employee pension obligations, she said.
Communication: Technology has paradoxically made good communication "sometimes more difficult than ever before to achieve," Ms. Thygesen said. The district has moved toward using technology to deliver newsletters via e-mail, to put reports and documents online, and to provide other information to the community, she noted. And yet, "the fact that all community members have so much access to information without having to ever actually talk to a knowledgeable person sometimes leads them to faulty interpretations and erroneous conclusions," she said.
While technological means of communication are important, she said, they don't replace "the need for live interaction." As a board member, she made it a practice to attend numerous school functions, PTO meetings, and other events, and to respond "in person, by phone or by e-mail to every single inquiry I received," she said.
>>> CANDIDATE BIOS
>>> LAURA LINKLETTER RICH
Education: Stanford University, bachelor's degree, psychology; currently working toward master's in instructional technology.
Civic service: Trustee, Menlo Park City School District, 1998-present; past member, Mid-Peninsula Teachers Institute policy board; past president, PTA Council, Menlo Park; past officer, Encinal School PTA, Encinal Site Council; California School Boards Association director, past delegate; San Mateo County School Boards Association, past president; website designer for district and two schools.
Experience/occupation: Web designer.
Family: Husband, Mark; two children, both district graduates.
>>> ANA URIBE-RUIZ
Education: Completed studies, civil law.
Civic service: Information not provided.
Experience/occupation: Banking professional, 25 years.
Age: Information not provided.
Family: Husband, Daniel Ruiz; one son in district school.
>>> JOAN LAMBERT
Education: UC Berkeley, bachelor's degree, English; UCLA, law degree.
Civic service: board member, Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation, 2008-present; editorial co-chair, Measure C Parcel Tax Campaign, 2010; co-chair, foundation's Major Donor Committee; member, Jeanie Ritchie Grant Committee, 2008-present; various volunteer work at Encinal, Oak Knoll, and Hillview schools.
Family: Husband, Mark Silverman; three daughters, two still in district schools, one now at M-A High.
>>> TERRY THYGESEN
Education: Stanford University, MBA.
Civic service: Trustee, Menlo Park City School District, 2000-08; adviser, Measure C parcel tax campaign (2010), and co-chair, Measure A parcel tax campaign (2000); past board member, San Mateo County School Boards Association; past board member, Californians for Improved School Finance; adviser, Ravenswood School District Parcel Tax Campaign; past board member, Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation.
Experience/occupation: Management consultant, financial analyst.
Family: Husband, Allan; four children.