Almanac

Schools - March 5, 2014

School district to put $265M bond measure on ballot

by Dave Boyce

A consensus of the Sequoia Union High School District board has agreed to put a $265 million bond measure on the ballot for the June 3 election.

The measure, if approved by 55 percent of the voters, would provide money to build new classrooms in time for an enrollment surge expected to begin with the 2015-16 school year.

New classrooms are among many priorities that include additional offices and bathrooms, more parking, gyms at two schools, and a second set of lights for athletic practice on each campus.

Enrollment in the district is expected to grow by at least 20 percent by the 2020-21 school year, and the campuses, including Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high schools, are all but built out. M-A is expected to bear the brunt of the surge as burgeoning enrollments now in the Las Lomitas and Menlo Park elementary school districts move on to high school.

Another top priority: construction of two small magnet schools of 300 to 400 students each, with one located in "the Menlo Park area" to relieve pressure on M-A. Each small school would need a curriculum focus, such as art or science, to attract students away from the comprehensive schools; that matter is now under study.

The board will consider a formal resolution on the June election at a special meeting on Wednesday, March 5, two days shy of the county elections office deadline of March 7.

About the tax

A $265 million measure in the Sequoia district would mean a property tax hike of $16 per $100,000 of assessed value, the district says.

The bonds would be paid off in 30 years, and the total would about double — to $530 million — with interest payments included, a district official said.

The Sequoia district extends from Belmont south to the county border and includes Atherton, Woodside, Portola Valley, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and nearby unincorporated communities such as Ladera and Los Trancos Woods.

Since 1996, the district has gone to the voters to approve bond measures four times for a total of $368 million. That total includes the 2008 passage of Measure J for $165 million. With the passage of that measure, property owners were paying about $30 per $100,000 of assessed value, a Sequoia official said at the time.

School construction bond measures avoid the two-thirds majority needed for passage of other tax increases in exchange for meeting the requirements of state Proposition 39, which include a list of projects the money would pay for. It is common practice to use broad wording in the list to allow flexibility as work proceeds.

Proposition 39 also mandates oversight of the spending by a citizens committee, including representatives from the business, senior-citizen, and taxpayer communities.

Some asymmetry

Public comment at the board's Feb. 26 meeting split about evenly on when to hold the election. A June election makes the money available sooner, but waiting for November gives campaigners more time to engage the community, potential volunteers said, adding that some voters in the northern part of the district are just hearing about the enrollment surge.

Would a June campaign be too demanding on volunteers? The teams are not yet fully staffed for phone banks and walking neighborhood blocks, organizer Jennifer Webb told the board. "You want to make sure those jobs are filled," she said.

Former board member Don Gibson disagreed. Phone banks weren't used in two previous bond campaigns, he said. He recommended relying on community leaders to spread the word, and added that campaign energy is higher in a June election and lower among volunteers over the summer.

Other timing factors: the advantages of lower turnouts in June, and the question of other bond measures on the ballot. The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District will have a $300 million bond measure on the June ballot, but the November ballot may include school construction measures from the San Mateo County Community College District and the state, board members said.

Voters may wonder about the proposed list of projects, which has an asymmetry about it. M-A would get 22 new classrooms versus six at Carlmont High, 11 at Sequoia High, and 15 at Woodside. Distribution of money among the schools is similarly uneven.

"The monies are following students," and the same standards were used to allocate them, Superintendent James Lianides told the board. "There is sort of a proportionality to it."

Voters may still be uninformed on those points, critics of a June election said. Communication and transparency are more important than getting funds early, said board member Carrie DuBois. "If we go in November rather than in June, there's just more time to communicate," she said.

"No matter what we do," said parent Lucia Tedesco, "we need the whole district to support this. I don't think a short delay of a few months ... is worth sacrificing a thoughtful plan."

The district has been transparent on the issues and the staff have the experience to "zero in on what needs to be done" during construction, said board member Olivia Martinez. "If we don't go in June, we will not be prepared when students appear on our doorstep."

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