Almanac

Cover Story - May 14, 2014

Election 2014: A quarter-billion for high schools?

• Measure A would raise $265 million for high school classrooms and other facilities.

by Dave Boyce

The coming surge in enrollment at area public high schools, particularly at Menlo-Atherton High School, is the issue driving Measure A on the June 3 ballot. The measure would provide the Sequoia Union High School District with $265 million in school-construction funding to add classrooms and other facilities, including two small high schools — one located in the Menlo Park area — for 300 to 400 students each.

The high school district is expecting an enrollment surge and, in fact, enrollment is already surging at local elementary school districts that feed into the Sequoia district, in particular the Menlo Park and Las Lomitas districts and those in San Carlos and Belmont-Redwood Shores. Sequoia officials predict high school district-wide enrollment will begin to reflect this surge in the 2015-16 school year and that by 2020-21, enrollment will be higher by at least 22 percent.

Enrollment at M-A is expected to grow by at least 25 percent by 2020-21, and by as much as 19 percent at Woodside High.

Measure A would add about $16 in taxes per $100,000 per year of a home's assessed value, bringing the total tax outlay to about $46 per $100,000 per year when bundled with four previous Sequoia district bond measures since 1996.

Measure A bonds would be paid off in 30 years. With interest payments included, the total cost to retire the debt would amount to about $530 million, a district official said.

The southern half of the Sequoia district includes Atherton, Woodside, Portola Valley, Menlo Park and the nearby unincorporated communities such as Ladera and Los Trancos Woods, as well as East Palo Alto and Redwood City. The estimates of enrollment growth do not take into account new housing in these communities adding to the district's school-age population.

Since all four Sequoia district campuses are built out, the district would make more room by adding second stories to several classroom buildings.

Plans show M-A receiving a total of 22 new classrooms. In addition to 17 regular classrooms, there would be two for science, one for chemistry and two for the arts or career technical education. (Five new regular classrooms are already funded.)

Woodside would get 15 new classrooms: 12 regular and one each for science, chemistry and art or career technical education.

The two new small schools would each have a curriculum focus, such as art or science, to attract students away from the comprehensive schools. In a search for models, the district's career-technology task force has been evaluating "several successful small CTE schools" in the Bay Area, Superintendent Jim Lianides told the Almanac.

Go to seq.org/?id=15 for background on Measure A, including a tentative project list.

The Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, which opposes Measure A, asks voters to question the measure's priorities, such as additional science labs and classrooms and technology training for 21st-century skills. Noting a $10 million fund established by Measure J, a $165 million measure approved by voters in 2008, the association appears to question the need for more technology funding.

Lower threshold

Bond measures for school construction, as established by state Proposition 39 in 2000, need the approval of 55 percent of the voters to pass, a threshold that is lower than the two-thirds majority needed for other tax increases. In exchange, the agency proposing the bond measure must include a list of projects that the money would pay for.

In composing the project list, it is common to use broadly worded descriptions so as to allow flexibility when working out the details. Proposition 39 also mandates oversight of the spending by a citizens committee, including representatives from the business, senior-citizen, and taxpayer communities.

Proposition 39 has had a significant impact on school construction, according to state records. Majorities of 55 percent or better approved 624 of 757 bond measure elections from 2001 through November 2013, a success rate of 82.4 percent. Among the 941 elections that required a standard two-thirds majority, just 55 percent passed from 1986 through November 2013.

More numbers

M-A enrolled 2,068 students for the 2013-14 school year, and is expected to enroll 2,416 by 2020-21, officials say. At Woodside, the comparable numbers are 1,767 and 2,103 students.

Eighth-graders who live in the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park and go to school in the Ravenswood City Elementary School District have long been assigned to M-A. Not the case for their near neighbors in East Palo Alto. Since the early 1980s, those Ravenswood students have been bused to Woodside and Carlmont high schools in keeping with a judicial decree intended to desegregate those schools.

The Sequoia board changed the busing policy in October 2013. Starting in September 2014, all Ravenswood students will have the right of first refusal to attend M-A. The change anticipates the assignment to M-A of all Ravenswood students when the board revises a boundary map ahead of the 2015-16 school year.

Adding the Ravenswood students, however, will not increase enrollment at M-A, officials say. M-A will lose about the same number of students from the North Fair Oaks neighborhood as they are reassigned to Woodside and Sequoia High.

M-A's growth will be coming from West Menlo Park, Atherton and Ladera — the Las Lomitas district — and from the Menlo Park district. The number of M-A students from Las Lomitas is expected be 59 percent higher by 2020-21, and 55 percent higher from Menlo Park, officials say.

Some residents have suggested a new comprehensive high school, but Sequoia officials say the $200 million price and the difficulty in finding a site are big problems. "Where would you even find available land where you're not designing a bell (class) schedule around low tide?" Sequoia Superintendent Jim Lianides said during a community forum in May 2013.

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