Narrowing education equity gap in local schools

Coalition could provide more public funds to Ravenswood schools

Although Willow Oaks School and the Laurel School Upper Campus are both public elementary schools located just blocks apart in Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood, their facilities, and their student bodies, couldn't be more different.

Upper Laurel, located at 275 Elliott Drive, is a brand-new state-of-the-art school just being completed by the Menlo Park City School District for 315 third- to fifth-grade students.

Willow Oaks, located at 620 Willow Road, was built in 1944 and was last upgraded 25 years ago. The Ravenswood City School District school serves 613 kindergartners through eighth-graders, many of them housed in portables that are up to 45 years old.

While the situation isn't new, what is new is a proposed way for local government to help foster educational equity on the Midpeninsula by making the differences in those schools a little less stark.

On Aug. 23, the Menlo Park City Council is scheduled to discuss the idea, put forward by Councilman Ray Mueller, of forming a new government body that could send some local money to the Ravenswood City School District.

"The intent ... is not to take money away from any child's education, but rather to raise the standard of every child's education so they are on equal footing," Mr. Mueller said.

The idea is to form a coalition, for now called the Equity in Education Joint Powers Agency, including the cities of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, plus San Mateo County and the Ravenswood district. A legal opinion from Eugene Clark-Herrera of the Orrick law firm, who researched the idea without charge, says state law governing joint powers agencies does allow such a coalition.

"It's time that we figured out a way to address this issue as a regional community," Mr. Mueller said.

The challenge

It's not just the facilities at the two neighboring schools that are different. Their students also are very different.

According the latest statistics available on the state's EdData website, in the 2014-15 school year, at Laurel School (which was then a kindergarten to third-grade school), nearly 50 percent of the students were white, 11 percent were still learning English, and less than 9 percent were from families with low enough incomes to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.

That same school year, at Willow Oaks School in the Ravenswood district, fewer than 1 percent of the students were white (six students to be exact), 65 percent were still learning English, and 93 percent qualified for free and reduced-price lunches, according to EdData. (School officials say almost all students actually qualify for the federal lunch program, but some families won't fill out the paperwork.)

A major factor in making these two public schools so dramatically different, despite being in the same neighborhood of the same city, is that their respective school districts have vastly different resources.

The new Upper Laurel is in the Menlo Park City School District, which has consistently ranked as one of top districts in the state in test scores. The district includes the central part of Menlo Park, parts of Atherton and the unincorporated Menlo Oaks neighborhood.

Willow Oaks is part of the Ravenswood City School District, which consistently reports test scores near the bottom in the state. The district encompasses the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, and small sections of the Willows neighborhood.

How they're funded

The districts are funded very differently. In the Menlo Park City district, as in the neighboring Las Lomitas, Woodside Elementary, Portola Valley and Palo Alto Unified school districts, assessed property values, and the property taxes associated with them, are so high that those schools get most of their funding from property taxes and other local income. This model, which the state now calls community funding, applies to only about 100 of the wealthier districts in the state.

In the Ravenswood district, however, assessed property values are so much lower that the district gets most of its funding from the state.

What each district spends to educate its students is not dramatically different, partly because the state now gives more money to districts with greater needs -- including those with a greater number of students who are learning English, are from poor families or have learning and physical disabilities.

According to 2014-15 information from EdData, the Ravenswood district spent $13,292 educating each of its 4,216 students, while the Menlo Park district spent $14,321 on each of its 2,904 students.

The differences in the classrooms are wider than the gap indicates. The average teacher salary in the Menlo Park district was more than $35,000 a year higher than that of teachers in the Ravenswood district in the 2014-15 school year, according to EdData. Class size averages were closer: just over 25 in Ravenswood and slightly less than 22 in the Menlo Park district in 2014-15.

But the Ravenswood district, because of its demographics, has to provide additional services to its students, including up to three meals a day and snacks for students, and bus transportation to and from schools, as well as extra help for English learners and those with learning and physical disabilities.

The bigger difference in the two districts' financial situations lies in the funding that comes directly from local property owners in the form of property taxes and parcel taxes.

EdData shows that since 1990, voters in the Menlo Park City School District have passed $136 million in bond measures for facilities, as well as six parcel taxes. District property owners are currently paying $852 in annual parcel taxes.

In the Ravenswood district, voters have approved $42 million in bonds and three parcel taxes since 1990. District property owners are currently paying an annual $196 parcel tax.

An additional problem is that the assessed property value in a district limits how much debt that district can raise by asking voters to pass bond measures. According to the report on the legality of a new joint powers agreement, the Ravenswood district is projected to have additional bonding capacity for issuing new bonds of only $25 million over the next 10 years. The report says that currently, on a per-pupil basis, the Menlo Park City School District's bonding capacity is five times that of Ravenswood.

That means that while voters in the Ravenswood district this year overwhelmingly approved a $26 million bond measure, unless the assessed property values in the district increase much more than projected, the district can't ask taxpayers to approve more than an additional $25 million in bond measures, no matter what its needs are.

Critical needs

The Ravenswood district needs far more than $51 million, even to pay for urgent repairs and safety upgrades.

In 2015 the district took a close look at all its facilities, most of which are at least 55 years old. A facilities master plan that resulted found more than $69 million in "critical" needs, including costs for meeting current code and disability access requirements, student safety, mechanical systems, and structural integrity.

It would take another nearly $5 million to deal with hazardous materials on the campuses, and $213.5 million more to modernize classrooms for current teaching needs, such as providing computers so children can take the latest standardized tests, the study shows. Doing what the study calls "non-critical but desired work to each school" would cost nearly an additional $45 million.

It adds up to nearly $333 million, in a district that can't ask its voters for more than $51 million.

Some of the critical needs identified in the master plan were taken care of this summer, thanks to the $26 million bond measure approved by district voters in June. That measure, which needed only 55 percent voter approval, received nearly 90 percent, which Gloria Hernandez-Goff, the district's superintendent, said is a record for the state.

Worse than it sounds?

The numbers in the master plan may not actually show how bleak the situation is in the district. Last winter the Costano Elementary School in East Palo Alto had to close two days before winter break because a gas leak meant the school couldn't be kept warm enough to hold classes.

The district tried to get by using portable electric heaters, but the aged wiring couldn't handle the load.

One of the 11 portable classrooms at the Ravenswood district's Belle Haven School, in Menlo Park, was condemned by the state last winter, according to Mahendra Chahal, the district's facilities director.

More such condemnations are a real worry in a district where the facilities master plan says some portables are 45 years old. "The life span of a portable is 25 years," it says.

Despite the fact that the report recommends replacing deteriorating portables with new permanent classrooms instead of attempting repairs, the district doesn't have enough money to do that. So this summer it put new roofs on a number of portables, replaced rotten foundations and floors, and stripped off and replaced rotted siding.

"It's like a hole in a dike," Superintendent Hernandez-Goff said of the efforts to keep the aging school buildings in usable condition.

Mr. Chahal said that repair work on the portables cost less than $25,000 per portable, while a new portable would cost at least $110,000 to buy and install.

Permanent replacement buildings aren't even in the picture for now.

"Where would we get the money to rebuild?" asks Superintendent Hernandez-Goff.


Related story: How new regional agency could help Ravenswood schools.

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11 people like this
Posted by Gentrification requires good schools
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Aug 17, 2016 at 1:34 pm

While it's commendable to see the City working towards the goal of improving the Ravenswood Schools one has to question the motives behind form such a proposal coming from a developer and builder friendly City Council. WIth the major increase in new office space more (Facebook) professionals are being encouraged to relocate to Menlo Park. Belle Haven and the Ravenswood school district has never been a priority for our Council. a Gentrified Belle Haven will require much improved schools for the young professionals now moving in. UNlikely that the current residents will be able to afford the higher rents that come with the gentrification nor will they benefit from seeing the Ravenswood School district make the improvements that should have started years ago.

33 people like this
Posted by Dear Lord
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 17, 2016 at 1:58 pm

[Part removed. Please make your point without negative characterization of other posters.]

@gentrification - I am so tired of the same old play book in Menlo Park. This education effort is amazing and way overdue. To try to tar it with anti-development rhetoric is just sad. It never amazes me the lengths people will go to in an effort destroy good things so they can discredit others for political purposes. Good work Ray! The far vast majority of us appreciate you. Don't let the naysayers stop you from helping these kids.

22 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 17, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Thank you Ray for a thoughtful and very needed proposal. Hopefully we can all work to support this effort.

21 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Aug 17, 2016 at 3:31 pm

pearl is a registered user.

Non-English speakers?!? Why are we taxpayers having to support and accommodate non-English speakers in our classrooms? It stands to reason that non-English speakers are going to bring down the ratings of classrooms that are forced to accommodate them. Are these non-English speakers here legally in the US? Anyone know who they are, and how it is they are in our country going to our schools without being able to speak English?!? If we went to another country and demanded classes accommodate us as English-only speakers, we would be laughed out of town, and thrown in jail!!!

6 people like this
Posted by Ravenswood bond
a resident of another community
on Aug 17, 2016 at 4:00 pm

Ravenswood is having great success passing bond measures. Voters overwhelmingly approve Ravenswood schools bond measure Web Link. Is there anything stopping the Ravenswood school board from rebuilding Willow Oaks school?

22 people like this
Posted by Beth
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 17, 2016 at 4:32 pm

Until we stop separating ourselves with others, or even one other, in any manner or forum, the manifestations of cooperation, compassion and personal growth will be beyond that person's bigoted viewpoint.

Menlo Park schools have had for a long time enough money to build new, tech-heavy schools, so why don't we help other districts that don't have those resources (parcel tax, fund-raising, etc). All the children will be living in proximity to many others unlike them, and with the population explosion that's a factor, we'd better all begin to practice being "neighborly."

In fact, I'm all for helping out Redwood City schools, or others around here. If you don't 'get' what and why I'm saying this, go look over their schools. Begin with the one east of Sigona's (or Costco) . Then return here and tell me why those kids should live with less opportunity

9 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on Aug 17, 2016 at 4:39 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Gentrification makes excellent points. The timing of this is suspicious. This should've been addressed decades ago.

10 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 17, 2016 at 5:05 pm

There's lots of construction within the Ravenswood district from Facebook and Sobrato among others. These are all multi-story high end office buildings, which should increase the property tax revenue dramatically without adding more students.

And, of course, the homes that sell within Ravenswood are also increasing in price along with the rest of the county. EPA properties are increasing at 7.5% per year and Menlo Park properties are increasing at an average of 12%.
Web Link

This positive revenue direction should help Ravenswood improve their bond capacity and ability to support higher parcel taxes.

2 people like this
Posted by Beth
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Aug 17, 2016 at 7:43 pm

@Gentrification and @Hmmm,

Yes, good points I missed them before - probably going too fast.

Wonder where Ravenswood District would be if Facebook or any other massive company hadn't come to town. Follow the money.

16 people like this
Posted by @pearl
a resident of another community
on Aug 17, 2016 at 9:02 pm

Please take your nativist rantings somewhere else.

6 people like this
Posted by Mr. Spock
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Aug 17, 2016 at 9:28 pm

@Beth, @Gentrification, @hmmm

Logically if Facebook and other "development" interests wanted to give money to the Ravenswood School District, why wouldn't they just give money to the Ravenswood School District?

3 people like this
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 18, 2016 at 8:58 am

SteveC is a registered user.

It is time to consulate the school districts in San Mateo County. All schools should be equal. Money saving would benefit all. Why do we need all this duplication?

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2016 at 11:42 am

Hmmm is a registered user.

Spock - you missed my point.

42 people like this
Posted by Train Fan
a resident of Menlo-Atherton High School
on Aug 18, 2016 at 11:50 am

Thank you for the article.

Ravenswood City Elementary SD’s (RCSD) performance is a problem that has been ongoing for generations; setting up a group focused on improving this district is likely overdue. RCSD has had plenty of time to fix this without intervention, and clearly they’ve been unable to do so.

However, I respectfully disagree with the thrust of the article, that RCSD’s issues have at their root a funding shortfall. Let’s look at the numbers:

Rough average of revenue per student, all San Mateo county elementary school districts, 2014-2015 school year: (21,553+21,498+16,799+16,584+15,214+13,740+13,060+10,731+10,605+10,149+9,591+9,573+9,373+9,319+9,060+9,043+8,696) / 17

County average revenue/student 2014-2015: $12,622

RCSD average revenue/student 2014-2015: $13,060

(source, : Web Link )

RCSD’s revenue is average to above-average in comparison to the rest of the county. Let’s look at a few example elementary school districts for the 2014-2015 school year:

RCSD: $13,060 /student
MPCSD: $13,745 /student
Redwood City ESD: $10,731 /student
San Carlos ESD: $10,149 /student
Redwood Shores/Belmont ESD: $9,591 / student

A few things jump out from these examples:
* Redwood City ESD deals with some of the same issues as Ravenswood, but generally performs better with significantly less funding per student (I do think Redwood City should get more funding though…a topic for another day).

* Redwood Shores/Belmont has a similar student population size, but drastically outperforms RCSD with substantially less money.

* MPCSD funding/per student is actually not that much higher than RCSD, but drastically outperforms RCSD. Somewhat ironically, MPCSD is used as the standard-bearer in the article as an example of a relatively well funded school district, but the numbers show they’re relatively close.

RCSD underperforms in all 3 major areas:
* student performance is well below average for the county;
* Teacher pay is below average;
* Facility quality is well below average;

RCSD has average/above-average funding by county standards, but performs poorly in all 3 above areas. Where is the money going????? I understand that the challenges of teaching non-native-english speakers increases costs, but clearly with the underfunding of teachers and infrastructure, that issue is financially addressed, yet the performance is still substantially under par.

The inescapable conclusion is that RCSD doesn’t have a funding problem, it has a managerial/structural problem. I hope this new group can address this deficiency.

(note: keep in mind that GO bonds (construction) do not show up in school district budgets, so the real revenue per student is higher than reported in California public school budgets)

Like this comment
Posted by JBS
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Aug 18, 2016 at 12:55 pm

SteveC's suggestion to consolidate all the school districts and put them on an equal funding relationship would result in less money for education in San Mateo as it would reduce the subsidy from the state. Consolidation's major benefit is to save the State money sent to San Mateo school districts. Currently of the 23 school districts in San Mateo, 9 are community funded which means that they receive property tax revenue above the LCFF (the State's guaranteed minimum funding per student)which the State refers to as excess property taxes. With consolidation the excess property taxes distributed to all the former districts would have the net effect of reducing the State's need to supplement funding to San Mateo. With consolidation all students would receive the guaranteed LCFF funding including the former Community Funded Districgts.

31 people like this
Posted by Education Helps Everyone
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Aug 18, 2016 at 1:15 pm

Pearl, whether you approve or not there are immigrants who don't arrive speaking fluent English but still need to be educated. They are children who had no say in their situation, and to ignore them to prove a point is to pave the way for a generation of uneducated, unemployable, angry and desperate people. Part of the American Dream was -- and still is, and should be -- that everyone has an equal right to be educated. Trust me, these children want to speak English and learn to read and write like everyone else, and if we ignore that to make a point about immigration we will all pay the price when the price is much higher.

There are lots of good comments in this strand but having volunteered in these schools I can tell you it's a complex mix of issues. Ravenswood attracts inexperienced and marginal teachers because it can't offer the perks of a Menlo Park, Palo Alto or even a Redwood City teaching position. Perks not only in terms of better salary and benefits, but also in a lack of adequate classroom facilities, supplies and support from parents (most of whom work multiple jobs to survive). Teachers are often long-term subs because the regular teacher has left for a better job somewhere else, or had personal problems or whatever. Many of the students are transient -- the children appear at school mid-year and leave before the end of the year, or stay through the following semester and then move. That's the fate of their families who can't find adequate, affordable housing and work, and so the children suffer.

You can't fix any of this with one magic formula -- it has to be a holistic approach. Some RWC schools are becoming "Community Schools" that offer full-family services such as pre-school and adult education so parents can learn English while their children are in school. A model similar to that, or a "sister-school" model where a more affluent school partners with a lower-performing school to offer some shared educational opportunities that enriches both groups of children may eventually offer solutions.

16 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Aug 19, 2016 at 10:58 am

Train Fan wrote:
"RCSD underperforms in all 3 major areas:
* student performance is well below average for the county;"

The biggest contributor to student performance is not teacher nor facility quality, it's the home environment. If a good home environment is not available, no amount of money spent on schools and teachers can solve this problem. There's a mistaken belief that if we only spent more on schools all of these education problems will be magically solved. More spending can solve some of the problems. Then, you hit a point of drastically diminishing returns.

If the parents have to work at nights or decide not to take an active role in in their child's education, that hurts student performance. It is especially hard in a single parent household. Moreover, if the parent doesn't emphasize how important school is for their child, it affects child behavior. The child will likely pay less attention in class and be more likely to have discipline problems.

I would be interested to see the test results from children in the Tinsley program when compared to their schoolmates. In one sense, Tinsley parents are motivated to give their child a better education. Otherwise, they would not ask to be part of the program and have their kids commit to the longer commute. But from a socioeconomic point of view, they are not at the same level as the average Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and Las Lomitas school district area family.

Tinsley results would be indicative of the upper bound of what better paid teachers and higher quality facilities can do.

6 people like this
Posted by Jack Hickey
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Aug 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm

Jack Hickey is a registered user.

Whatever happened to Nairrobi School and Gertrude Wilks? That was a cost-effective means for producing a quality education in a nurturing environment without coercion.

4 people like this
Posted by Mark Gilles
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Aug 20, 2016 at 12:16 pm

I would suggest that merging all districts in Menlo Park, into a unified district like Palo Alto. Las Lomitas, MPCSD, Ravenswood and Menlo Atherton HS should be combined. Operating efficiencies and a broader funding base will benefit Ravenswood and enable the combined district to upgrade the physical plants and alleviate disparities in teacher salaries. I would also suggest that as educational quality improves in the lower performing Ravenswood schools, it will result in a better prepared student body entering high school. I applaud Ray Mueller for his efforts but it is only a beginning. All Menlo Park students deserve the high quality educational opportunities found in the wealthier micro-districts. It is a matter of equity in my opinion, and founded on the principles that made America great.

1 person likes this
Posted by JBS
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Aug 20, 2016 at 3:35 pm

Mark Gilles, please read my earlier post. Merging the school districts will increase the funding base but will benefit the State more than the local schools, as the broader funding base will reduce the state subsidy to guarantee around $8,000 per student. In all likely hood the total amount of funding will decrease as the "excess property taxes" going to Menlo Park, Las Lomitas will now just reduce the state subsidy that goes to Ravenswood. Mark is right that a merger's broader property base would support a GO Bond for Ravenswood's physical plant. Merging districts does not save that much on administration staff as you would still need the same number of principals and would need some number of assistant superintendents and assistant financial officers to manager the new larger district.

I too support Ray's proposal. It is a great first start in reducing educational inequality in our county.

1 person likes this
Posted by Mark Gilles
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Aug 20, 2016 at 4:30 pm

Apple makes a good point. A major difference in outcomes is parental involvement.Las Lomitas, MPAEF, and M-A all have very strong PTO's that enable those districts to support enrichment. Parents that value education and make it a priority make the difference. parents in the Ravenswood District have proven their commitment by a 90 percent yes vote on the recent bond issue.

Like this comment
Posted by JBS
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Aug 20, 2016 at 6:36 pm

Apple and Mark make very good points about the wealthy school districts able to provide additional funds through PTO and Foundations to enrich their schools student experiences. Those funds, along with property taxes are deductions from income and thus the Federal and State Government is contributing around 30% of those funds through reduced tax revenues. This is another factor that contributes to the inequality of educational opportunities across school districts in San Mateo County.

4 people like this
Posted by annarnoldhaley
a resident of another community
on Aug 25, 2016 at 12:47 pm

Excellent proposal, Mr. Mueller, and much needed for far too long.

2 people like this
Posted by Caroline V.
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Aug 31, 2016 at 1:01 pm

Caroline V. is a registered user.

All great ideas; however, I do not support more funding until there is full transparency and accountability. The current administration is using our tax payers money to expand government jobs and their bureaucratic corporate business style as well as for their legal defense. The Common Core was implemented without proper planning and without the necessary resources; creating a crisis within a crisis. Our schools are supposed to provide safety, equity, and quality education for all. Yet the reality shows that despite the increased spending California remains at the bottom of all 50 States and the achievement gaps continue to widen. Graduation rates might have increased, but that is because the current administration got rid of the exit exam and implemented a new rating system that is adjustable. This administration helps students graduate through group efforts and now many students graduated without the necessary skills to enter the workforce. It would be nice if our policymakers and our elected and appointed officials would uphold the funding requirements and uphold the promise of safety, equity, and quality as stated in our education laws, government laws, and Constitution, and would fulfill their promise to reduce the gang and drug activity, stop the bully culture, improve the learning environment with qualified teachers, and stop the cheating, the incivility and stop the sexual assaults. We do not need new legislation because we have the laws in place. The laws just need to be enforced.

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