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By Andrea Gemmet, Sean Howell and Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writers
Good news seemed in short supply in 2009, and that was certainly true for residents of the Midpeninsula. A year of big decisions, tight budgets and stretched resources took its toll on local governments and local school districts, with consequences that will surely resonate through 2010.
After perusing the contents of overflowing notebooks, Almanac reporters selected the top five stories of 2009. These are the topics that galvanized readers, provoked endless hours of discussion in city council chambers and board rooms, and filled the pages of the newspaper.
For Menlo Park, two enormous land-use decisions loom large. One could reshape the city's downtown, the other could introduce development on a massive scale near Marsh Road and Bayfront Expressway.
Residents of Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood faced the foreclosure crisis first-hand, and the city struggled to find ways to save homes. Atherton faced a series of painful and embarrassing financial setbacks, while the Menlo Park City School District wrestled with how to house an influx of students on an increasingly tight budget.
The Sequoia Union High School District's lengthy fight against Everest ended in defeat, with the newest charter school opening its doors in August.
A year of living arduously
Life, even for institutions, has its ups and downs. Life has been mostly up since August for Everest Public High School, a new charter school that opened in Redwood City.
Everest is a clone of six-year-old Summit Preparatory Charter High School, which has been highly successful in preparing kids for four-year colleges. There's a waiting list every year at Summit Prep, as there was for Everest in its first year.
But to open its doors, Everest officials, on behalf of its lottery-chosen freshman class, engaged in a year of bare-knuckled fighting with elected and appointed officials from the Sequoia Union High School District. Also participating, and always in the thick of it, were lawyers.
With Everest now suing the Sequoia district over an allegedly illegal offer of facilities in East Palo Alto, the fight is far from over.
Hostilities began in September 2008, when a majority of the Sequoia board denied Everest a charter, then followed Everest's petitioners to the San Mateo County Office of Education to lobby that board to also deny Everest, which it did. The district claimed economic hardship and that Everest would skim motivated kids from traditional schools and leave the tough cases.
Everest countered that it would do as good or better job for much less than it costs the district, and that its students mirror the district's in terms of ethnic, academic and socio-economic diversity.
As the state Legislature's rules recommend, Everest petitioners took their case to the state Board of Education in Sacramento, where they won a charter on a unanimous vote.
The battle then shifted to the Sequoia district's obligation to offer Everest "reasonably equivalent" facilities. The district, claiming prerogatives to locate charters where it sees the most need, proposed pre-manufactured buildings on a lot in residential East Palo Alto.
Everest turned it down and offered a compromise site in centrally located Redwood City. The Sequoia district turned Everest down and appears to have tried to run out the clock by claiming environmental problems with the site, though agencies with oversight gave it a clean bill of health.
Everest surprised the district at the end of July with a lease for a floor in a furnished empty office building in Redwood City, leaving the Sequoia district no time for an effective countermove.
Menlo's future in the balance?
In weighing a long-term plan for its downtown and considering a proposal for a massive office/hotel project in the city's eastern reaches, Menlo Park council members say they're simply trying to solidify the city's financial standing, and to let the community determine the future of development in its downtown.
But committed activists are prepared to fight tooth and nail next year to prevent the million-square-foot Bohannon project and the higher-density downtown plan from becoming reality — in their currently planned forms, at least. The council is expected to vote on each project by November 2010, a date that could make for another hot Menlo Park election season.
A group of powerful downtown property and business interests, including Nancy Couperus, Mark Flegel and the Draeger family, has organized to oppose preliminary plans for a revamped downtown. Early proposals for two- to three-story buildings along Santa Cruz Avenue, plans to replace some surface parking with parking garages, and a small covered marketplace are among the aspects of the plan that have raised hackles.
And familiar political players including Paul Collacchi, Morris Brown, Patti Fry, Elias Blawie and Vince Bressler have ... well, not opposed the Bohannon project, necessarily, but expressed grave concerns about the proposal currently on the table. Mr. Brown has said he sees a push toward a higher-density, big-city atmosphere in both projects.
"People don't want another Redwood City, or another Palo Alto," Mr. Flegel told council members at the Dec. 15 meeting. "We want a Menlo Park."
A series of unfortunate expenses in Atherton
Atherton's budget took a beating in 2009, and much of it was self-inflicted.
The ghost of decisions past continue to haunt the town, which grappled with an unexpected $2 million shortfall early in the year, a big deal in a town with a $10.6 million budget. More than $1 million of that shortfall could be traced to lost revenue and refunds caused by problems with the collection of the business license tax.
Atherton may well face another big hit to its budget in 2010, if the City Council decides to issue further refunds for the road-impact fee. The fee, charged to builders and used to repair roads damaged by heavy construction vehicles, is of "questionable legality" and was dumped by the council in December upon advice from new city attorney Wynne Furth.
An outcry from residents who paid thousands of dollars in road-impact fees may convince town officials to dig deep and refund some of the roughly $5 million collected since 2001.
Legal problems plagued the town in 2009, as former finance director John Johns filed a lawsuit seeking to be reinstated, two years after he was fired. A sexual harassment lawsuit against Public Works Supervisor Troy Henderson filed by now-retired Atherton police officer Pilar Ortiz-Buckley resulted in a $230,000 settlement that will come out of the town's general fund. Mr. Henderson, who has allegedly racked up sexual harassment complaints for 15 years or more, is still employed by the town.
Foreclosures plague Belle Haven
As activists in the center of Menlo Park worked to preserve the city's "village character," scores of residents in the eastern section of the city scrambled to hang on to their homes.
Predatory lending practices and a sinking real estate market during the recession left many homeowners either "underwater" or unable to meet mortgage payments, or both. In 2009, there were never fewer than 100 homes in Menlo Park in some stage of foreclosure proceedings, the vast majority of them in the Belle Haven neighborhood. As of mid-December, that number had crept above 150, according to realtytrac.com.
While aid from federal, state and regional governments has not been forthcoming, the city of Menlo Park initiated two innovative programs aimed at keeping people in their homes, and fixing up foreclosed properties for people in need of affordable housing. The city is also helping to fund a Habitat for Humanity project to rehabilitate and sell homes to "very-low-income" residents.
Still, those efforts haven't succeeded in diminishing the steady stream of defaults and foreclosures. "The issues are just so massive," Housing Manager Doug Frederick said in a January 2009 interview. A year later, not much has changed.
Too many kids and no place to put them
Will 2010 see another bumper crop of kindergarteners in the Menlo Park City School District? Officials in the K-8 district, which serves residents of Menlo Park and Atherton, are bracing themselves for another record number of students.
Despite a $91 million building campaign to add two-story classroom buildings, improve facilities and reclaim playground space, the latest demographic projections show that district schools are rapidly running out of space.
Too many students and not enough money is a common problem in local school districts, but in Menlo Park, the problem is particularly acute. The school board is watching carefully to see if kindergarten enrollment, which opens in February, will again exceed projections. If it does, it may signal the need for desperate measures.
The board is weighing whether to reclaim its O'Connor campus and take on the expense of opening a fourth elementary school or find another way to accommodate an anticipated surge of students over the next 10 years. Menlo Park already has two of the biggest elementary schools in the Bay Area, in terms of student population, and they're likely to get even larger.
In an era of tight budgets and uncertain revenue, unpalatable options may be the only ones available. Class sizes could grow, or the dreaded portable classroom trailers could once again eat up playground space on elementary school campuses.
Another alternative would shrink enrollment by ending inter-district transfers. The district would suspend the Tinsley transfer program, a product of a desegregation lawsuit settlement that allows 24 new students from the Ravenswood School District to transfer to the Menlo Park district each year. The district would also stop allowing the children of teachers and district staff to attend Menlo Park schools.
The grim prospects for revenue make it likely that voters will soon be asked to support a parcel tax to preserve programs and class sizes at district schools.