High school board candidates discuss big issues


It was an evening of 90-second statements, one after another. The three candidates running for election to the board of the Sequoia Union High School District fielded questions from an audience of about 30 in the district's Redwood City offices on Thursday (Oct. 2), courtesy of the League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County.

The questions to challenger Georgia Jack and incumbents Alan Sarver and Chris Thomsen addressed topics that were broad -- statewide changes in teaching methods and testing standards known as Common Core -- and narrow -- whether the upcoming re-examination of the high-school-assignment map would keep students from unincorporated North Fair Oaks at Menlo-Atherton High School.

The Sequoia district is facing steep enrollment growth over the next seven years. For at least the next year, the board will be grappling with how to approach building physical capacity and financial wherewithal to accommodate students now in elementary school, as well as new students from multi-family housing being built in Redwood City and Menlo Park.

A redrawn map is a near certainty so as to more evenly distribute among the four comprehensive high schools students from communities that have surges in enrollment. New 400-student magnet high schools are also in the mix.

Mr. Thomsen and Mr. Sarver referred frequently to their accomplishments over the past four years, including a more robust Internet technology department, significant improvements in professional development for teachers, and greater collaboration among teaching disciplines and, significantly, between the Sequoia district and its "feeder" elementary school districts.

Ms. Jack touched on how district administration could improve. She returned repeatedly to the importance of buy-in from the community at large by deep and wide outreach across the district.

On a question about the stubborn issue of the achievement gap, she noted the high unemployment rate in East Palo Alto among high school graduates and the differences in the educations experienced by her two children: one received an OK education, the other less than OK, she said.

Some questions elicited different takes from the challenger and the two incumbents. Why, one questioner wanted to know, does the Sequoia district have a budget reserve of 20 percent?

Some it is redistributed property tax revenues from the dissolution of redevelopment districts, and is intended for unexpected expenses and for Common Core implementation, the incumbents said. The district has an unfunded health insurance debt that has to be paid.

"Yes we do have reserves," Mr. Thomsen said. "We need to be aware of it as one-time money. We need to use it for the Common Core."

"I have wondered about this reserve," Ms. Jack said, "because it is significantly larger (than in surrounding districts). I think many of them would be very happy to have a 6 percent to 8 percent reserve. It's important that it be explained in full detail in public meeting."

Because properties within the Sequoia district tend to have much higher than average property values, the district has the privilege of avoiding state augmentation of its revenues and gets to keep them all. But these revenues do not rise with a rising population of students. How might the district cope with staffing expenses as enrollment rises, an audience member asked?

Property values tend to rise by about 5 percent annually, which exceeds the cost of living, Mr. Thomsen said.

Mr. Sarver said he sees enrollment growth outstripping growth in property tax revenues. Small magnet high schools could help in terms of being flexible, he said, but the district may have to consider asking voters for a parcel tax.

Is 5 percent annual growth realistic, Ms. Jack asked. It all comes down to programs and staffing and what we want for our students, she said.


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Posted by M-A Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 4, 2013 at 3:49 pm

As parent I concur with Ms. Jack and I would like the board to explain this extravagant reserve. While the recent jump to $20 Mil is due to a one time influx, the district has had a steady reserve of $17 mil for quite few years, while making cuts to program and asking parents to raise money. Why M-A parents are asked to raise $2 Mil to pay for critical programs like AVID, guidance counselors, etc. while the district is hoarding money?

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Posted by Parent in the district
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 4, 2013 at 9:51 pm

I was very impressed with Georgia Jack and will be voting for her.

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Posted by long time resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 8, 2013 at 12:44 am

Basic aid districts such as SUHSD must maintain larger reserves since they aren't getting any per student funding from the state and are more subject to variance in property tax revenues. It's pretty amazing that someone running for the board would advocate such an financially irresponsible level of reserves for a basic aid district as the 6-8% that Ms. Jack is quoted as suggesting.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Oct 8, 2013 at 7:22 pm

Ms. Jack never suggested that SUHSD should keep a level of reserve of 7-8%, she merely suggested that a reserve of 20% should be explained and discussed at board meeting. I personally would add that I would like to see the board discuss and have a reserve policy rather than letting reserves go up while making cuts to programs (or while not funding critical programs.)
As for the "variance" of property taxes, really? In the last 12 years, while my kids were in the local basic aid district, I have never seen property taxes go down: worse that happened, they were flat.

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Posted by long time resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 9, 2013 at 10:48 am

There has been variation in property taxes, and the district is doing what ALL responsible basic aid districts do. Ms. Jack seems to be very good at throwing stones, yet is not being very transparent at all about what she would actually do about anything. She's also throwing stones about the district doing responsible planning for enrollment growth without saying anything specific about what she would do differently. People in the MA community can certainly see through this. Keep MA Strong!

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Posted by How about everybody else?
a resident of another community
on Oct 9, 2013 at 2:37 pm

Ms. Jack has ran a very positive campaign and has thrown no stones, unless you think that asking questions is throwing stones. She has been very clear on the kind of process she would use: involving all the communities! This board seem to cater only to the problems of Menlo Park and Menlo-Atherton - no wonder, 3 out of 5 board members are from Menlo Park! How about the other three high schools, should we keep all the high schools strong for all our students? The worst enrollment growth is going to occur up here at Carlmont High School, and what is this board doing to alleviate that? They do not even talk about it anymore! The incumbents may keep Menlo Park happy, but they are losing everybody else.

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Posted by long time resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Oct 10, 2013 at 1:31 am

I was at the presentation that the SUHSD Superintendent made this week, and their plan includes doing plenty to relieve overcrowding at Carlmont. In fact, Carlmont ends up with by far the sweetest deal of all four high schools in their plan in terms of size and demographics. I don't see how anyone can accuse the board of only caring about Menlo Park, when the plan has Menlo Park taking over ALL of Ravenswood.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Woodside High School
on Oct 10, 2013 at 9:25 am

Long time resident, are you really implying that Carlmont gets the "sweetest deal" and that Menlo Park is being hurt by the enrollment of students from East Palo Alto? What is your real issue here?

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Posted by Old MP
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Oct 10, 2013 at 10:18 am

M-A is the closest school to EPA and East Menlo. Why anyone would want to challenge the proposed change must have an agenda that they're embarrassed to admit publicly?

The Redwood City families north of the Fair Oaks area feel they are getting the short-end. They are now optioned to (choice) either Woodside or Sequoia. They are getting moved to schools that are farther away than M-A.

I would say that West Menlo is getting the sweet deal as everyone knows that they are closer to Woodside than M-A.

All in all, the SUHSD board seems to be trying to do the best they can given the circumstances and demands. There is no way they can gain 100% consensus on this. Some people will be happy and some will not.

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Posted by Young MP
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Oct 11, 2013 at 2:34 pm

I am not clear how as a resident of West Menlo Park I am getting a "sweet deal": is it because I am getting the privilege to drive 20-25 minutes to drop off my students at an overcrowded school? My children are only in pre-school and elementary still, and I do hope that this nonsense will stop before they get to high school. Sweet deal would be going to the closer school (like the Ravenswood students.)

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Posted by CBG
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Oct 14, 2013 at 2:39 pm

With can't EPA get its own high school? All this nonsense about busing EPA kids to 4 different schools would end. The EPA community needs its own HS.

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

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