For four local elementary school districts — Menlo Park City, Las Lomitas Elementary, Portola Valley and Woodside Elementary — 2016 was a year of planning and preparing for the future, with parcel tax proposals in two districts, new buildings opening in two districts, and planning for construction in two others.
MENLO PARK CITY
The Menlo Park City School District's budget and how to balance it were in the forefront for most of the year.
Early in 2016, the school board decided to put two parcel tax measures on the ballot — one a straight renewal of an expiring tax, and one a variable tax based on annual enrollment growth. Like three other parcel taxes the district has, the two taxes would not have had expiration dates.
If both measures had been approved, the maximum total parcel tax paid by district residents would have been $1,320 per year, increased each year by the amount of local inflation.
Opposition to the two measures sprang up, and the renewal measure received the support of 60.3 percent of voters, while the tax tied to student enrollment was backed by 54 percent of voters. Each needed approval of at least two-thirds of the voters for passage.
Soon after the measures failed, district officials met to decide what to do next, predicting that without a parcel tax the district would have a $5.3 million deficit by the 2020-21 fiscal year.
The district held 10 meetings to discuss how to cut spending and raise revenues, culminating in a December vote to put a new seven-year parcel tax measure on a March 7, 2017, ballot. The measure would replace the expiring $207 annual tax with a $360 tax, bringing in $2.83 million a year.
The school board is working to decide what spending cuts must be made even if the parcel tax is approved, as well as a fall-back plan for cuts if the tax fails.
The district opened a new school in October, called Laurel School Upper Campus, serving 300 third- to fifth-graders who had been squeezed onto the Laurel School Lower Campus site with the kindergartners to second-graders since classes opened Sept. 1.
Before the new school was built, the students attended Laurel through third grade and then went to Encinal School for fourth and fifth grades.
The school, at 275 Elliott Drive in Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood, has 16 classrooms, two STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) labs, a music room, library and a multi-use gym and stage.
It also has a covered eating area, spaces that can be shared by teachers for collaborative activities, and offices. Outside, the school will have a playground, running track and a baseball and soccer field. It was built with proceeds of a $23 million bond measure approved by more than 75 percent of the voters in 2013.
When longtime school board members Jeff Child and Maria Hilton decided not to run for re-election this fall, five other community members stepped up: former Oak Knoll principal David Ackerman, Las Lomitas teacher (and parcel tax opponent) Caroline Lucas, Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation co-president Alka Gupta, and Laurel School site council president Scott Saywell.
Former appointed board member Scott Hinshaw also filed to run, but after it was too late to keep his name off the ballot he said he had to withdraw for personal reasons.
The election was close, but in the end Mr. Ackerman and Ms. Lucas were elected with 5,814 votes for Mr. Ackerman, 4,964 for Ms. Lucas, 4,644 for Alka Gupta, 4,617 for Scott Saywell and 1,711 for Scott Hinshaw.
With its own $290 parcel tax due to expire next June, the one-school Woodside Elementary district started talking about putting a parcel tax on the ballot early in 2016.
But it was side-tracked by two controversies: proposal to change the name of the school's auditorium, and a flier, authorized and paid for by the district and sent to district residents, that said a newly constructed auditorium was a remodel of the old auditorium, which had been demolished.
The school board ended up postponing the parcel tax measure several times before finally voting unanimously to put a renewal of the expiring parcel tax on an April 4, 2017, special mail-in-only ballot.
The Woodside district is in a much different financial situation than the Menlo Park district, with enrollment falling about 12 percent since the 2013-14 fiscal year to 398 students this fall. During that time the school's property tax revenues increased by about 20 percent, and the district's projections show that even without the parcel tax revenue, Woodside would still have the state required reserve of 4 percent of its general fund budget.
In January, a crowd showed up at the district's usually deserted board meeting to talk about an item not on the agenda — a proposal to give the school's new auditorium a name different from the name of the building it replaced — Sellman Auditorium.
No one in the district ever officially said where the idea of a new name had come from, but after being barraged with opposition from former and current district residents, the school board voted to retain the Sellman name, slightly changing it to Sellman Pavilion.
George Sellman was a Woodside Elementary teacher or superintendent for 37 years, known for his contributions to the school's long tradition of eighth-grade operettas and to Woodside's community theater productions. He died in 2005 at the age of 81, a few years after the original Sellman Auditorium was rededicated in his honor following a $1.5 million renovation. That building was torn down in June 2015.
Just before the district celebrated the opening of the new $8.26 million auditorium, district residents were surprised to receive a mailing from the district that said the new auditorium wasn't really new. "Sellman Auditorium was in bad shape. ... We seismically retrofitted it, fixed the leaky roof and upgraded the facility," the glossy brochure said.
District officials refused to say why the faulty information had been distributed, although it appeared they had been following the advice of a parcel tax campaign consultant.
LAS LOMITAS ELEMENTARY
In February, 177 parents signed a letter asking the Las Lomitas Elementary School District to do more to diversify its teaching staff. State figures showed the district with 38 percent non-white students but only 9 percent non-white staff in 2014-15, and fewer non-white teachers than any other nearby district except Portola Valley, at 8 percent, and Woodside Elementary at 7 percent.
"We would like to see the educators and administrators who inspire, inform, enlighten and advocate for our children reflect the spectrum of diversity in our classrooms and community," the letter said.
About 75 people showed up at an April school board meeting to discuss the diversity issue. Consultant Eugene Whitlock said the district has been working hard since the topic first surfaced more than a year and half earlier, and had already increased the percentage of non-white teachers on its staff to nearly 15 percent.
Mr. Whitlock said most of the steps he had recommended to help recruit a more diverse teaching staff were already in place. The district promised to take two other steps: a "diversity statement" for the district and modifications to district recruiting materials.
By the filing deadline in mid-August, no one but incumbents Bill Steinmetz, a retired attorney from Ladera, and Diane Honda, a Menlo Park attorney, applied for two open school board seats, so no election was held.
The Las Lomitas district spent much of the year finalizing plans for construction projects that should start at both district schools when the school year ends in June.
A two-story, 21-classroom building is planned for La Entrada. At Las Lomitas a new kindergarten "village" with second-story classroom space, plus a new administration building are planned.
The work will be paid for with proceeds from a $60 million bond measure approved in 2013.
Kevin Keegan, the principal at the Portola Valley School District's lower-grades Ormondale School, left in June to take a job at the Santa Clara Unified School District near his home. Sue Sartor, the former principal at Las Lomitas School, served as interim principal until veteran educator Lynette Hovland took over in October.
Ms. Hovland, a San Mateo resident, was an elementary school principal for five years and a middle school principal for nine years, before moving to the district office of the San Carlos School District.
In January, Eric Hartwig, who was hired as interim superintendent of the two-school district when Superintendent Lisa Gonzales abruptly left in October 2015, agreed to continue as interim superintendent for the district through the 2016-17 school year.
Mr. Hartwig retired as the superintendent in the Las Lomitas Elementary School District in 2012 after a 36-year career as an educator.
Looking ahead, the district is working on a facilities master plan that will include a 10-year plan for work at the district's two school sites as well as long-range plans for the district's facilities. Cody Anderson Wasney Architects of Palo Alto is the district's contractor for the master plan.