Almanac

Viewpoint - May 8, 2013

Editorial: Tough decision on adding school site

Trustees of the Menlo Park City School District are going to have to decide, probably by May 13 or soon after, when to take over the O'Connor School site in the Willows and whether to build a completely new campus or refurbish and add classroom space to the existing building.

Leased from the district by the German-American International School since 1991, O'Connor would provide desperately needed classroom space to accommodate runaway enrollment growth. Projections show that the district's three elementary schools will have a net increase of 82 students when doors open this fall. Such a huge influx would require four new classrooms if the current class size in the lower grades is continued.

Two of three possible actions to accommodate this tide of new students would require the district to seek voter approval of a bond issue to upgrade O'Connor. A third option, to simply make cosmetic changes to the school, could be accomplished with the $3 million the district has on hand that was left over from an earlier bond issue.

Here are the options the board will consider:

• Go all out and build a totally new school from the ground up with with 16 to 20 classrooms (360-400 students) for $22.2 million.

• Undertake a less ambitious school renovation with 14 classrooms (280-300 students), including six portables (four classrooms, a library and art/music room) for $9 million.

• Use $3 million in funds left over from a previous bond issue to make cosmetic changes and add six portables (four classrooms, library and art/music room).

A demographic study will be a key driver of the board's decision. With enrollment at 2,791, which is up 40 percent since 2000, school district staff members say enrollment could continue to rise to between 3,000 and 3,300 in the next decade. Such a scenario would argue for building a bigger school, rather than seeing the mid-level choice fill up in just a few years.

Scenarios provided by the district show several possible configurations for O'Connor, including: a K-5 neighborhood school; a K-1 school; and a "school of choice" that could serve programs such as K-5 Spanish immersion, the arts, or science and technology.

All options for the site except that of making cosmetic changes and adding six portable classrooms would require a bond measure approved by district voters, which should not be a problem in a city where residents have always supported ballot measures to improve the schools. This time should be no different. A rejuvenated school at the O'Connor site would be a big boost for the Willows neighborhood and finally give students and parents a school easily accessible by walking or biking. But the district has to hope that the runaway student enrollment comes to an end soon.

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