Weekday mornings, Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood bustles with outbound kids, says Belle Haven Neighborhood Association member Sheryl Bims.
Whether through the Tinsley Voluntary Transfer Program, private schools in the area, or homeschooling, many households in the neighborhood pursue alternatives to attending school in the Ravenswood City School District, she said.
She's a supporter of a petition formulated by the Belle Haven neighborhood association that is calling for the transfer of Belle Haven Elementary from the Ravenswood City School District. As of this week, the petition has received 67 online signatures and more hard-copy signatures.
The petition calls for the school, on Ivy Drive in Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood, to be transferred to the Menlo Park City School District. If it cannot join that district, the petition states, a new district should be formed, which would include the city's Belle Haven neighborhood, the "M-2" area – where the city has zoned for up to 4,500 new housing units to be built – and Haven Avenue, where a combined 540 new apartments have been built.
The petition does not mention the other Menlo Park school in the Ravenswood City School District, Willow Oaks Elementary, at 620 Willow Road.
Neighborhood association president Rachel Bickerstaff summarized: "Too many Belle Haven families are forced to commute throughout the Peninsula on a daily basis because they cannot send their children to the local public schools."
She pointed to 2017 statewide testing results, contrasting outcomes between the Menlo Park City School District and the Ravenswood City School District. About 81 percent of the students in third through eighth grade in the Menlo Park district met or exceeded math standards, compared with 12.7 percent of the students in third through eighth grades in the Ravenswood district who met or exceeded math standards.
In addition to disparities between the school districts' test scores, Bims said, the school-day exodus of children from the neighborhood raises questions and concerns about the local public school offerings.
Recent tension between the community and the school district over the removal of Belle Haven Elementary School Principal Todd Gaviglio has heightened the neighborhood's concerns with district leadership, as has a "vote of no confidence" in district superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff by the district's teachers' union last spring.
Bims called the events "huge red flags." On April 4, nearly half of the students at Belle Haven Elementary boycotted the school in protest of the principal's removal.
"Whatever methodologies are in place aren't properly serving the community," Bims said. "It's time to start addressing the elephant in the neighborhood."
There have been three previous secessions of neighborhoods in Menlo Park from the Ravenswood City School District in the past several decades, transfer proponents said: Menlo Oaks, Suburban Park and the Willows. Those households took with them their property tax base into the Menlo Park City School District, which is considered a self-sustaining "basic aid" district that generates enough taxes per student to not rely on any state funding.
The Ravenswood district does rely on state funding because its property tax base is not sufficient to meet a certain per-student funding baseline.
Because of the difference in how the schools are funded, it's likely that the amount of the area's property tax base would be a major factor in whether the Menlo Park district would opt to take on the new territory.
Bims challenged residents of the Willows, Suburban Park and Menlo Oaks neighborhoods to return to the Ravenswood district if they feel it's important to not leave that district in the lurch by reducing its property tax base, since the state automatically pays the difference based on the number of children who attend the school.
"I doubt we'll have many takers," she said.
"It shouldn't be on the backs of the Belle Haven neighborhood to say, 'You need to stay behind,'" said Rose Bickerstaff, a member of the homeowners' association. "Did people think about (that) when the Willows, Menlo Oaks and Suburban Park pulled out?"
The Almanac received a written statement from Hernandez-Goff in response to the petition:
“To me, there is no doubt that we can and must do better as a district," she wrote. "That’s why the reforms that are currently being implemented within our district are necessary to the long-term success of the new Ravenswood. Although I share the petitioners' frustration, not only regarding Belle Haven, but the entire district, we are working extremely hard to overturn decades of failed policies and practice. I ask the community to work with us as partners as we continue the upward trajectory of our district.
Last September then-Menlo Park Mayor Kirsten Keith convened a public forum to discuss educational equality in Menlo Park. At the time, Suzanne Carrig, a Santa Clara County education official, gave a presentation about how to change district boundaries.
Carrig told attendees that in San Mateo County, the request for transfer would first go to an 11-member county committee on school district organization, and would be subject to 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.
Another criteria: The change can't be made for the sole purpose of increasing property values.
The matter would likely go to the governing boards of the school districts involved and might go to voters, she said.
According to Rose Bickerstaff, the petition needs to be signed by a quarter of the registered voters in the area to move forward.
"Sometimes, to attack a problem, you have to start with a small piece of it," Bims said. "What we're trying to do is save a community school."
"At this point, we're just trying to get through that first hurdle," she said. "We'll see how this journey goes for us."