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Year in review: Local school districts deal with change and growth

 

The Menlo Park City and Las Lomitas school districts continued to deal with the ramifications of ongoing student growth this year, as they planned for or began projects to make sure they can accommodate the influx of new students.

The Menlo Park district also spent months fighting two proposals: a bid by the residents of 31 homes on the north side of Menlo Park's O'Connor Street to transfer from the Ravenswood City School District into the Menlo Park City School District and the formation of a Mandarin language immersion charter school.

In Portola Valley and Woodside, the schools do not have the problems of a growing student body, but each district had different kinds of worries.

In the Woodside Elementary School District, an attempt to fire a teacher turned into a drawn-out and expensive process.

In the Portola Valley School District, Superintendent Lisa Gonzales' resignation was announced in October. It was later revealed that the district paid her more than $100,000 to leave, and had signed an agreement that prohibited either side from saying why she left.

Menlo Park district

In May, the Menlo Park City School District broke ground to start construction of a new Upper Laurel School at the site of the former O'Connor School at 275 Elliott Drive in the Willows area of Menlo Park.

By fall 2016, the two-story Upper Laurel School for third- to fifth-grade students is due to open its doors. The school will have students in the attendance area of the district's K-3 Laurel School.

The school should relieve much of the pressure on the district's existing schools due to steady enrollment growth.

That growth was one of the district's arguments against allowing a group of residents who live on O'Connor Street, very near the site of the new school, to transfer their homes from the Ravenswood City School District into the Menlo Park City School District.

In June, the San Mateo County Committee on School District Organization voted unanimously to deny the transfer, citing financial burdens for both districts and the probable worsening of racial and ethnic diversity.

The O'Connor Street residents say they have appealed to the state board of education.

The district also found itself before the San Mateo County Board of Education in February when a proposal to open a Mandarin language immersion charter school in the district was denied by the county board.

The proposal had been opposed by many parents in the district and the Menlo Park district school board voted unanimously in November, 2014 to deny it. Backers of the charter did not appeal to the state board of education.

Woodside district

Woodside Elementary School District, a one-school transitional-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade district, began the process of firing one of its tenured teachers (whom the Almanac is not naming because all charges against him were dropped) in late January. In April, after he was put on paid administrative leave and notified that he would be fired, the teacher appealed, leading to a public hearing in front of an administrative appeal board in late September.

In November the district learned it had lost the case and the appeal board had dismissed all the district's charges against the teacher. Superintendent Beth Polito said the loss means the district is responsible for the teacher's legal bills and all the costs of the five-day hearing, as well as its own legal costs, all of which will probably add up to around $180,000, she said.

In addition, the district said it has been paying the teacher's full salary of close to $98,000 a year, plus benefits, since they hired a replacement for him in April. The district will also either have to pay the teacher to agree to resign or pay the costs of an appeal, if it decides it doesn't want him back.

The total cost could easily surpass $350,000, not including the cost of district staff time that has gone into the case.

One factor that may have led the Woodside district to pursue the case (in 2014, there were only 22 such completed hearings in a state with 295,025 public school teachers) is that it has more resources than many school districts.

The Woodside district receives 21 percent of its budget, or $4,800 per student, from donations from the Woodside School Foundation, much more than any other local district. In the 2013-14 school year, Woodside spent an average of $19,458 per student, more than twice the statewide average for elementary schools that year of $8,336 per student, and more than any other local district.

Woodside Superintendent Beth Polito is paid more than $230,000 a year to run the 434-student school district, which also has two principals, a business official and a student services director on its administrative team, as well as a director for its tuition-based preschool. Superintendent Polito makes about the same amount received by the superintendent of the Menlo Park City School District, which has 2,975 students in four (soon to be five) schools.

Portola Valley district

In October, the Portola Valley School District announced in a press release that its superintendent, Lisa Gonzales, was leaving, effective that day.

What the release did not say is that the district paid Ms. Gonzales a severance package worth more than $100,000 to leave. A copy of the "Mutual Separation Agreement," with the district, which the Almanac requested under the California Public Records Act, says that Ms. Gonzales was to receive six months of her base salary, or $91,500, plus the cash equivalent of nine months of health insurance for her family, which the district estimates at $12,000. She will also be paid for accrued vacation, which the district estimates at $8,000.

The agreement also says neither side will communicate in any way in which "one of the parties disparages the other or has the effect of damaging in any way the reputation of ... the other party."

The agreement also contains the exact wording that can be used if the district receives any inquiries about the superintendent's departure: that it was "a mutual separation for Ms. Gonzales to take on a greater leadership role" with the Association of California School Administrators. Ms. Gonzales has been an officer with the administrator's association since before she was hired by the district.

Eric Hartwig, former principal at Menlo-Atherton High School and superintendent of the Las Lomitas district, was hired as interim superintendent, a job he had accepted before Superintendent Gonzales' departure was announced.

The district says it will begin formal recruitment for a permanent superintendent in January.

Las Lomitas district

The Las Lomitas School District, which has two schools, La Entrada (grades 4-8) and Las Lomitas (kindergarten to grade 3), has the same pressures of rising student population as the Menlo Park district.

Las Lomitas voters approved a $60 million bond measure in 2013 to help permanently solve those problems. It is still finalizing construction plans, partly because the district had the opportunity to purchase an acre of land next to the Las Lomitas School campus in Atherton in 2014.

Construction plans are to be finalized in 2016, but include building a two-story, 22-classroom structure with a covered lunch area and reconfigured blacktop area at La Entrada. This summer, three portable classrooms were moved onto the campus. They are not only providing needed classroom space, but should help allow classes to continue uninterrupted when construction begins.

Current plans for Las Lomitas School include a new kindergarten area, updated parking and drop-off areas, second-story classroom spaces, a covered lunch and additional playing field areas. The district is working with the town of Atherton to try to solve drainage problems near Las Lomitas School.

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