Almanac

Schools - March 27, 2013

Private school pleads for more time at O'Connor site

by Renee Batti

More than 600 supporters of a private school that may be booted from its longtime home two years before its lease is set to expire signed a petition that was delivered to the Menlo Park City School District board on March 20, appealing to the board to delay the eviction for one year.

German-American International School officials presented the petition, with 635 signatures gathered in just four days, at an afternoon study session held to further review the board's option of opening a new district school at the former O'Connor School site to deal with the district's burgeoning enrollment.

The private bilingual school took over the O'Connor site at 275 Elliot Drive in Menlo Park in 1991, and has a lease agreement with the district that expires June 2016.

Last October, the district notified GAIS that it might exercise the option included in the agreement to terminate the lease two years early, in June 2014, and has publicly stated it might open a fifth campus there for the 2014-15 school year. If the board decides to evict the private school that summer, it must notify GAIS by April 10.

The decision is set for the April 9 school board meeting, but on March 22, the board met in closed session; the agenda for that meeting, posted March 21, after the study session, said the board would discuss a "lease modification" pertaining to the O'Connor site.

Board president Terry Thygesen said no action was taken at the closed meeting. The discussion, she said, pertained to the terms of the current GAIS lease, and was therefore within the legal bounds of what can be discussed in closed session. The board didn't discuss whether to allow GAIS to stay at the O'Connor site, she said.

At the March 20 meeting, the board reviewed a report on the possibility of placing a bond measure on the ballot to pay for an overhaul of the O'Connor site, which now has a single, district-owned building and several portable buildings owned by GAIS.

The board also heard from 13 speakers, who urged board members to allow the private school to remain on the campus one more year. Many argued that if the board decides next month to evict GAIS in 2014, the school will have only 15 months to find a new home — not enough time, they said, to find a suitable property in the highly competitive Peninsula real estate market, jump through all the permitting hoops, and prepare the site to house a student body of more than 300.

"I am formally asking you to postpone termination of the lease by one year," GAIS board president Thomas Siegel told the district board. Noting that the school has "ramped up our efforts tremendously" to find a new site, such an effort takes time, he said. Without the extra year, he said, the school would be in jeopardy of having to shut its doors.

Speaker Elizabeth Sanborn, a real estate agent who said she has scouted out roughly 25 sites for private schools in the last six years, supported the speakers' assertion.

"Sites are not easy to find, but they're there," she said. "I firmly believe that (GAIS) can find a site (and open a school), but ... it can't do it in 15 months."

Enrollment pressure

The board must wrestle with the reality of student enrollment that is growing at an unexpected rate. Several earlier demographic studies predicted a slower, less dramatic increase in students, and a leveling off by the middle of this decade.

The latest study, however, predicts enrollment growth over the next 10 years, with projected enrollment in 2022 ranging from 3,000 to 3,500, according to Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district's director of facility planning and construction. Current enrollment is 2,791, having increased by about 40 percent since 2000, according to Superintendent Maurice Ghysels.

If the district doesn't take over the O'Connor campus in the 2014-15 school year, measures to accommodate student growth on existing campuses might include larger class sizes and portable classrooms, Mr. Sheikholeslami said in his report.

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