Almanac

Schools - June 19, 2013

Voters to face $23 million school bond measure

by Renee Batti

School board members on June 11 agreed with Menlo Park City School District staff that district voters should be asked to approve a $23 million bond measure in November to pay for the reopening of a fifth campus. A new school is needed, the board determined earlier this year, to address rapidly growing enrollment.

The district plans to reopen the former O'Connor school in the Willows neighborhood in Menlo Park, operating it beginning in 2016 as a school for third- to fifth-graders coming from the K-2 program at nearby Laurel School.

Final approval of placing the bond measure on the Nov. 5 ballot, and ballot language, was on the agenda for a special board meeting set for Monday, June 17. (The meeting was held after the Almanac's press time; go to AlmanacNews.com for an updated report.)

At that meeting, the board was also expected to approve a lease extension for the German-American International School (GAIS), allowing it to remain at the site until May 15, 2015.

Approval of the bond measure will require a 55 percent vote of support. According to draft bond language and an overview by the district, the "best estimate" of the maximum tax rate levied to meet the debt service of a $23 million bond would be $8.70 per year per $100,000 of assessed valuation of taxable property.

The board struggled with the specific amount of money voters will be asked to approve for the planned 16-classroom school, which will have a starting capacity for about 360 students. The school will be designed so that it could be converted to a K-5 school, with capacity for classroom expansion, if the need arises.

Perhaps making the decision on the $23 million figure a bit easier was a report by consultant Ruth Bernstein, who conducted two focus groups involving about 20 randomly selected probable voters. One conclusion she drew from the sessions: "District voters know their local schools are among the best, and that is the result of deliberate planning and smart decision-making by the district, in addition to the ongoing support and dedication of teachers, parents and community.

"They are committed to doing what is needed to continue supporting the very high level of educational quality, and that includes classroom and facility improvements."

The board, staff, and consultants discussed the ballot language, and adjustments to the draft language presented on June 11 were made before the June 17 meeting.

Existing campus, school

The German-American International School has leased the campus at 275 Elliot Drive since 1991. The site has only one permanent building, constructed in the 1950s. It has never been renovated, according the the district. GAIS uses that building and a large number of portable buildings for its 320 students.

The private school's lease had been set to expire in June 2016, but the district recently used a termination clause in the agreement to end it in June 2014.

But the GAIS community pleaded with the district to allow it to stay a year beyond that, saying that the school needs more time to find a new home and that it would likely be forced to close if forced to move in 2014.

With the near-certain extension of the lease that will allow GAIS to stay put for its 2014-15 school year, "I think we will be successful" in remaining operational until a new location is found, renovated and ready for students, said Thomas Siegel, president of the GAIS board of directors.

Mr. Siegel said the school has identified four or five sites as potential locations, and "there are two we're particularly excited about. ... I'm more optimistic than I ever have been" that the school will remain open.

Although a lease extension was yet to be signed by the Almanac's press time, the school board "has given direction to staff to finalize it. I don't see any hiccups (in the process). I'm convinced that this will happen."

Mr. Siegel said the district staff and board members have been "very cordial and accommodating" in working out a solution with GAIS, and prior concern about the early termination of the lease "has given way to appreciation."

What kind of bond?

At last week's meeting, board member Jeff Child indicated that he favors traditional current-interest bonds rather than the increasingly controversial capital-appreciation bonds (CAB). (With a CAB, the public agency pays no interest until the bond term ends, but the interest rate is higher, as is the ultimate cost to the public.)

Mr. Child asked the district's bond consultant whether it would be possible, if the entire board agrees, to signal an intent in the ballot language to issue the less-costly current-interest bonds. The consultant said the board could consider including that intent when it approves the ballot language on June 17.

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