Menlo Park schools face unpleasant options

Among the options: suspending the transfer program that allows minority students from Ravenswood district to attend Menlo Park schools.

Menlo Park City School District delayed its decision on opening a new elementary school at the O'Connor campus as officials mull a range of unpleasant options for dealing with an projected surge in student enrollment -- including suspending the Tinsley transfer program that allows minority students in East Palo Alto's Ravenswood district to attend Menlo Park district schools.

Despite the district's current projects to add classrooms and reclaim playground space on all four of its campuses, projections show that climbing enrollment in the next five years will necessitate larger class sizes or the addition of portable classrooms to its elementary school campuses.

Opening a fourth elementary school campus would alleviate the space crunch, but is a costly solution in a time of shrinking education revenues. And, those same projections show that enrollment will taper off and drop back down to the current level of about 1,850 K-5 students by 2019.

For the most part, all the options are unpleasant, the financial outlook isn't promising, and the actual number of future students is unknown.

"I love finding win-wins, and this just feels like a lose-lose (situation)," said board member Laura Rich.

Superintendent Ken Ranella outlined costs, challenges and a couple of new options to the board at its Dec. 8 meeting. One option that Mr. Ranella presented would eliminate the nearly 150 transfer students from outside the district during peak enrollment years, which would alleviate the need for portables or a new elementary school, he said.

"It's just an option, it's my last option that I put on the page," Mr. Ranella told the board.

It's a problematic option, to say the least. Currently, 122 of the 145 interdistrict transfer students are part of the Tinsley program. The remaining transfer students are the children of Menlo Park district faculty and staff.

Tinsley settlement

The Tinsley voluntary transfer program resulted from a 1986 court settlement over a desegregation lawsuit. It requires the Menlo Park district to accept 24 new students every year from the Ravenswood district, which encompasses East Palo Alto and Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood, according to Peter Burchyns, spokesman for the San Mateo County Office of Education.

Ravenswood students may apply to attend school in Menlo Park or a half-dozen other districts, including Palo Alto Unified, Las Lomitas, Portola Valley and Woodside. Once accepted, a Tinsley transfer student is guaranteed a place in the new district through eighth grade.

Turning away Tinsley students requires permission from a San Mateo County Superior Court judge, and is something no other district has done, said Mr. Burchyns.

Mr. Ranella said he is discussing suspending Tinsley transfers with the county superintendent of schools, and believes it would be legal. The court order says that a district does not have to add facilities or drop any element of its curriculum as a result of enrolling Tinsley students, Mr. Ranella said.

Board members said they'd like Mr. Ranella to explore the idea further, although board member Mark Box said the option raises questions not just about the district's commitment to support children from Ravenswood but also the commitment to its own students to increase diversity in the schools.

"We have a very legitimate problem," said Jeff Child, the newly selected board president. "I'd like to see where it comes back on that (Tinsley) issue."

O'Connor site

The district is facing a January deadline to notify the O'Connor site's tenants, the private German-American International School, of a decision on its lease. The lease expires in 2011 and unless the board notifies GAIS in January, the lease will automatically renew for five more years.

Despite doubts about the enrollment projections -- several board members said they don't think it will go as high as forecast -- district officials want to keep their options open.

"If we extend (the lease) for five years, then we're out to 2017, and that's a hell of a gamble," said Mr. Ranella.

Instead, the board directed Mr. Ranella to pursue talks with the GAIS about a new lease arrangement that would allow either party to opt out with a 14- or 16-month notice. Board members said they'd like to wait and see what the incoming kindergarten numbers look like when enrollment starts in February. The past two years have seen a bumper crop of new kindergarteners, far exceeding demographic projections.

"I'm not sure if we're being strategic or if we're kicking the can down the road," commented Mr. Ranella.

The financial considerations weighed heavily on board members. The small O'Connor campus could accommodate no more than 250 children and would require an estimated $10 million to bring it up to par with the rest of the district's elementary schools. Running a new school would cost the district about $650,000 a year, which includes lost rental income and the cost of hiring administrators and staff. That number does not include teacher salaries, a cost the district would incur regardless of the school site.

The high price tag, coupled with the undesirable location of O'Connor -- it's on the remote edge of the district in Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood -- led several board members to wonder if money wouldn't be better spent by selling O'Connor to the GAIS and purchasing a new, more centrally located property for a school.

Hans-Peter Metzger, the head of the German-American International School, said his school could be interested in purchasing the campus.

"We're not making an offer right now, but it's something we at the school would entertain," he told The Almanac. "We've been here almost 20 years and we like where we are."

In the meantime, the GAIS has been scouting new locations, although the school community would hate to move, he said. He said he understands the Menlo Park district's difficult position.

Other options

Cheaper, but equally unpalatable options include parking portable classroom trailers on school campuses, or boosting class sizes rather than adding classrooms.

Oak Knoll principal David Ackerman said he'd rather see class sizes grow a bit than take up part of the school's new athletic field with portables. The district isn't blessed with an abundance of land, and construction projects at Oak Knoll, Encinal and Hillview schools include two-story classroom buildings in order to maximize playground and field space.

Terry Thygesen, a former board member who is part of the advisory committee that worked with Mr. Ranella on his report, encouraged the board to seek a parcel tax rather than cut the budget by eliminating programs or allowing the already large elementary schools to continue to grow.

"The schools are really the heart of the community," she said. "Before we degrade things, let's give the community a chance to step up."


Like this comment
Posted by Bill
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 14, 2009 at 9:59 pm

MP school district board members have never been all that sharp over the years regarding estimates of future students, especially the brilliant decision to get rid of the Fremont School property.

Like this comment
Posted by Elementary! Watson
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Dec 15, 2009 at 8:57 am

District could get by with renovating existing OConnor buildings and using the portables on the side of the playing fields. It's specious to throw around the $10MIllion figure for a "comparable" facility when $2Million would easily make it a functional campus. There are 3 access points to OConnor, Oak Court (both from Woodland by vehicle to the staff parking lot and pedestrian/cyclist access from Menalto), Byers Drive off OConnor St. , as well as the current access to the front of school from OConnor St.
Growing student population in the Willows will continue as young families priced out of Palo Alto homes will opt to buy fixers in the Willows.
More importantly, Ranella's report states that Oak Knoll has 250 plus more kids than any comparable sized K-5 campus in the entire Bay Area. Like OConnor, it is at the far corner of the district and access on narrow winding streets makes traffic control in the neighborhood problematic, especially with commute traffic shooting out Oak Av. morning and afternoon.
District should cut a deal with the city and the PV's on the old Fremont site on Middle Ave., move Rosener House to Allied Arts (which is begging for tenants) , convert the senior center bldg. into a new K-3 campus for central Menlo and Allied Arts, to take pressure off Oak Knoll's excessive attendance.
Reopening OConnor would take pressure off Laurel, and eliminate the agonizingly dangerous Coleman Ave. "safe routes to school" for Willow kids.
The district needs better enrollment and facility management consulting, not just rely on past board presidents, and forge a cooperative city/school partnership rather than the adversarial relationship Ranella has promulgated with his threat of lawsuits against the City Council for daring to "meddle" in school affairs.

Like this comment
Posted by AgeOfReason
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 15, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Elementary! Watson,

You did not address one crucial problem: you have a brain.

Please point one out on the current MPCSD board.

An English teacher and MBAs are all I see. Your solution is far too logical and may require some creative administrative staffing (i.e., don't duplicate administrative staff at every campus).

In short, you're out of your league. You are dealing with major league uncreative and non-analytical minds. You don't stand a chance.

Like this comment
Posted by C'mon Menlo Park
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 15, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Is the school district going to continually put up with such comments from "Age of Reason" and "Bill", that are unfounded, idiotic and not true? This Board has some very intelligent individuals, chock full of Stanford, Northwestern, Wharton and UC graduates. A couple of them know more about finance in their little pinky versus "Age of Reason" and "Bill". Your comments have no analytical thought. The forecasting of kids into a community such as ours, is extremely difficult, many people have gotten it wrong, and have gotten it wrong several times. It is difficult to determine how many families will move here in a given year, to buy, or to rent. It has become increasingly difficult to determine private kids moving to public. It is a complex challenge, but one that can be solved if we all get behind the schools, support them, and understand that THEY are the key to our highly sought after community. It certainly is NOT our "vibrant downtown" and it certainly is NOT some of our negative bloggers like "Age of Reason" and "Bill". Without these schools, you would have a completely different community, think about what you would have..............I can name maybe one or two other communiites on the peninsula that have, what we have. Please stop your ridiculous comments "Age of Reason-likes" and "Bill-likes"!

Like this comment
Posted by AgeOfReason
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm

"C'mon Menlo Park",

Yes, MPCSD should suppress all remarks and root out critics. They should not put up with criticism...

Are you just ignorant or a fascist? Calling out public officials for public decisions is how accountability is enforced in a free Republic. Read much?

Knowledge of finance? Funny. Advanced arithmetic skills are not something that most educated folks brag about. Most MBAs could not derive a non-linear expression applicable to most present value calculations even if their life depended upon it. Forecasting is difficult and variable: crap in, crap out. Contingency planning and decision making under uncertainty are dependent more on the quality of the decision maker. I know. I'm starting to go above your head, so I'll stop.

Like this comment
Posted by admissions officer
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Dec 15, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Wassamatter, Age, Stanford GSB reject you? Why don't you get out there and run for the board yourself if you have the answers!

Like this comment
Posted by Long enough
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Dec 15, 2009 at 4:07 pm

I would like to thanks Mr. Ranella for putting the Tinsley program on the table. That "solution" has far outlived its usefulness and would unlikely survive a test in the courts. It's time to end the program and ease our school crowding.

Like this comment
Posted by AgeOfReason
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Dec 15, 2009 at 4:29 pm

To "Long enough": why do you think it wouldn't survive a test in the courts? Just curious.

To the adolescent "admissions officer": No. Never cared to apply. Average GSB student, even at a strong place like Stanford, is a mediocre student in almost any other discipline. Look at the numbers. They do have reasonably good intramural teams though.

Like this comment
Posted by C'mon Menlo Park
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 15, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Thank you Admissions Officer! Age of Reason, cannot reason, without beating everyone up in the process. It's MORE than o.k. to question authority, but only after you have done your homework, and stop attempting to create mass hysteria! I wasn't aware that our town was so full of crazy people, crazy people that don't participate they just bash, and bash, and bash some more. This guy sounds like our favorite school hater, "Oak Knoll Curb Cutter Guy".

Like this comment
Posted by "A good Trade School"
a resident of Atherton: other
on Dec 15, 2009 at 4:36 pm

As my Harvard MBA friend likes to characterize the "Farm"

Like this comment
Posted by ispolitesobad
a resident of another community
on Dec 15, 2009 at 5:35 pm

Haters (including "AgeOfReason [sic]":

Accountability is not what you are perpetuating. Anonymity gives a cloak of incivility to pompous jerks like you. You second guess decades-old decisions, and speak with incredible certainty about clear uncertainties, presenting your opinions as facts, never using the phrases "it is possible" or "I think" or "maybe". How about using your real names and see whether you might get some manners, and respect the hours and effort volunteers give, even if they (and you, of course) are fallible. People like you destroy communities, volunteers try to build them.

Peace, love, and understanding

Like this comment
Posted by what the f
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Dec 15, 2009 at 6:05 pm

What the h*ll is wrong with the majority of you commentors? Just a bunch of blithering egotistical ranters who like to see their nastiness in electronic print. Not one of you has presented anything useful. All you do is rant about other people's thoughts because you don't have anything useful to say! You might find your true callings by becoming Fox commentators.

Unfortunately god has convinced all the ranters to move to Menlo Park.

Now after reading this don't you wish you never learned how to use a keyboard.

Like this comment
Posted by Richard Hine
editor of The Almanac
on Dec 15, 2009 at 6:55 pm

Richard Hine is a registered user.

I closing this down because it is just posters attacking each other instead of discussing a topic.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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