Almanac

Schools - June 5, 2013

School board faces tough decisions on new campus, bond measure

by Barbara Wood

The members of the Menlo Park City School District's board of education have had to make some difficult choices recently as they struggle to deal with a flood of new students, and it appears there are still some hard decisions ahead.

The board has decided it needs to open a new school, decided to do it at the district-owned O'Connor school site in the Willows neighborhood, decided to spend three years to complete the project, decided to make O'Connor a neighborhood school and decided tentatively (without finalizing the details) to ask voters to approve a bond to pay for it.

Among the decisions remaining are whether to build a completely new school, or whether the new campus should include the existing 1950s-era school building. Another key question: how much bond money to request.

The question that appears to remain the most vexing, however, if the discussion at a public hearing held in the Hillview Middle School's new auditorium on Wednesday, May 29, is any indication, is if O'Connor will house only kindergarten to third-grade students or be a kindergarten to fifth-grade school, serving children up to middle school age.

Most, but not all, of the parents who spoke said they favor a K-5 school. According to a report presented to the board on April 30 by Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district's director of facility planning and construction, the consensus of a committee of teachers, principals and administrators who studied the issue was also in favor of K-5 schools, all other things being equal.

But board members seemed to be leaning away from the K-5 concept in favor of having Laurel and O'Connor schools serve as a two-campus K-5 school, with Laurel hosting kindergarten through second grade and O'Connor serving third- through fifth-graders.

The two-campus school option is less expensive to build, but board members seem to be more concerned that it would be impossible to bring Laurel School up to the standards of other district schools as a K-5 school.

At the April 30 meeting, Mr. Sheikholeslami cited the staff committee's findings that a K-5 school is better for forming teams and relationships among staff, students and parents, with fewer transitions and more consistency in the parent- teacher organization.

Drawbacks cited include the need to share specialized teachers such as art, music and physical education, and a perhaps difficult middle school transition from a small school into a large school.

At the May 29 meeting, Oak Knoll teacher Jacqui Cebrian voiced her support for K-5 schools. "I love our school being a K-5," she said. "I love having the kids there from kindergarten to the fifth grade."

Ms. Cebrian also voiced the opinion of many of the speakers who said that making O'Connor and Laurel neighborhood K-5 schools would help Menlo Park's traffic problems.

"You have such a great opportunity to take a lot of cars off the road," Ms. Cebrian said. "It's an opportunity to create a great small school where you have your kids for the full six years and reduce the traffic in Menlo Park in one fell swoop."

But board member Laura Rich voiced opinions that several other board members also expressed, saying she does not want Laurel School to have to go through the construction process again. "I have watched that poor school going through construction over and over," she said. Building a new multipurpose room would also take from the school's already-limited field space.

Ms. Rich and other board members also worried that a school district with all neighborhood schools might have to keep adjusting attendance boundaries to deal with fluctuations in numbers of students and cause some families to involuntarily send their children to school outside their neighborhood. "I actually lean more toward the K-2 than the K-5," Ms. Rich said. "I think we can make that all work."

Board President Terry Thygesen also had concerns. "I feel very good about our ability to operate O'Connor as a K-5 school," comparable to existing district schools, she said. But some of the conditions at Laurel School cannot be changed. "At Laurel no matter what you do," she said, "you're not going to have more than a 29,000-square-foot field area."

While some of the other decisions can be put off, the board will have to decide on the amount of a bond measure by June 11, when it will meet to approve the language of the measure for submission to San Mateo County. Final approval on the bond language will come at a June 17 special meeting.

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