A discussion on the disparity in funding and educational outcomes among Menlo Park kids drew what appeared to be more than 100 people to a community meeting Sept. 18 convened by Mayor Kirsten Keith at the Menlo Park Senior Center in Belle Haven.
Some in the audience, mainly a number of people who live in Menlo Park's Belle Haven area in the Ravenswood City School District, said they no longer want their neighborhood to be part of that district.
"We're here today because a lot of people recognize that a lot of students are not getting a high-quality public education," said Sheryl Bims, a Belle Haven resident.
Two schools in Menlo Park are part of the Ravenswood district: Belle Haven Elementary and Willow Oaks Elementary. Statewide test results have long shown that a majority of Ravenswood students do not meet state learning standards.
By contrast, test results of students in the two districts serving most of Menlo Park and Atherton, the Menlo Park City and the Las Lomitas districts, are among the highest in the state.
In the Ravenswood district, about half of the students are considered homeless defined as lacking fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence, Ravenswood Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff has pointed out. Prior to the meeting, she sent a strongly worded letter to Menlo Park's mayor opposing any move to change district boundaries.
Mayor Keith said multiple times that the meeting was for informational purposes and did not represent an endorsement of any policy.
Suzanne Carrig, a Santa Clara County education official, gave a presentation about existing options for changing district boundaries, and Joe Ross, a member of the San Mateo County Board of Education, talked about what's happening countywide in the area of education.
Attendees had the chance to talk for up to two minutes about their concerns or to make comments.
Ms. Carrig, director of policy development and administrative programs in the Santa Clara County Office of Education, outlined the steps for changing the boundaries of the school district, whether by transferring territory from one district to another, consolidating a district, or creating a new one.
The process is intricate, she said, but noted that in San Mateo County, the decision would first go to an 11-member county committee on school district organization.
There are nine criteria that are considered in evaluating the potential impacts of district boundary changes. They include ascertaining whether the proposed changes would yield an equitable division of property and facilities, promote racial or ethnic segregation, affect educational programs or increase state costs. The change also can't be made for the sole purpose of increasing property values.
The matter would also go to the governing boards of the school districts involved and might go to voters.
At least two Menlo Park neighborhoods have seceded from the Ravenswood district. In 1976, the unincorporated Menlo Oaks neighborhood broke away from that district on a 3,490-to-3,290 vote. Parents wanted to leave the district and join the Menlo Park City district for "political, social and educational reasons," according to a news clipping from the San Mateo Times. The transfer included about 250 homes and an estimated 64 elementary school students, only eight of whom reportedly attended Ravenswood schools.
In 1983, the Willows neighborhood seceded from the district on a 4,440-to-2,436 vote.
Belle Haven resident Michael Hoff asked how the process might be streamlined in a territory transfer and how to avoid the topic's politicization. Ms. Carrig said the process will most likely involve the state Board of Education, which has an expected timeline of about two to two-and-a-half years to decide such matters.
Others at the meeting, including local educators and parents, defended the Ravenswood district. The problem isn't the district; it's the lack of funding needed to retain good teachers and improve facilities, they said.
Caroline Lucas, an educator who is on the board of the Menlo Park City School District, said she's coached a number of teachers who have started their careers in the Ravenswood district and a few years later wind up working in neighboring districts, where the pay is much better and the students' needs are less demanding.
Cecilia Taylor, a 2016 Menlo Park City Council candidate, grew up in Belle Haven attending schools in the Ravenswood district. She said that the school facilities don't appear to have changed much since she was there in the 1970s.
"That doesn't mean the education is poor, but it does mean that the facility is old," she said.
Ronda White, who was raised in East Palo Alto and teaches at Belle Haven Elementary, encouraged parents in the district to come and look at the schools instead of homeschooling their kids, applying to another district or sending their kids to parochial or private schools, as some attendees said they'd chosen to do rather than send their kids to the Ravenswood schools.
Belle Haven resident and teacher Bronwyn Alexander noted that Belle Haven Elementary has a maker space; access to an on-site public library; a yoga program; science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) education; a music program; and a workshop-based reading and math program.
Marco Duarte, father of four children in the Ravenswood district, said he is pleased with the learning outcomes he's seen for his kids so far. "We're proud to be in Ravenswood schools," he said.
Mr. Ross, the San Mateo County school board member, said that changing district boundaries is possible, but takes a lot of time. Faster changes might be made by looking at initiatives succeeding at charter or public schools that work with students similar to those in the Ravenswood district, or by pursuing a proposal made months ago by Menlo Park Councilman Ray Mueller to start a Joint Powers Authority.
Such an authority would create a cross-jurisdictional board with district and city leaders who could work together to leverage funding for capital improvements in Ravenswood schools. Identified projects needed to bring the district's schools up to the same quality level as neighboring districts are estimated to cost about $350 million, but district can raise only about $50 million through bond measures, Mr. Ross said.
"There is a wildly depressing achievement gap in this county," he said. "We've got the richest and the poorest schools in terms of disparity here."