In a divided decision, the Menlo Park City School District Board of Trustees will not stake out a position against a citizen-sponsored ballot initiative that seeks to take away the Menlo Park City Council's authority to rezone any properties that are currently zoned for single-family housing.
Measure V, also known as the Menlo Balance initiative, is on the Nov. 8 ballot. Proponents of the bill say that it will keep streets safer from increased traffic and force developers to work with residents. Critics say the bill could heavily delay the development of affordable housing and prevent Menlo Park from reaching its state-mandated housing goals. It would put up roadblocks to future projects, specifically renovations to the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's Station 1 on Middlefield Road and developing the vacant Flood School campus for teacher and staff housing.
The majority of trustees said they worried about alienating community members over the controversial measure, even if they are personally against the initiative. Board President Scott Saywell said there is "politicization of school boards across this country and it's not good." With three out of the five board members clearly against the idea of formally opposing Measure V, Trustee Francesca Segrè withdrew a resolution that would have taken a stance against the initiative.
Trustee Stacey Jones said Measure V is "thorny and complicated" and the resolution risks "serious damage to our relationship with the community," and "pitting parent against parent." Trustee Sherwin Chen agreed.
The proposed resolution urged Menlo Park voters "to reject any measure that would seek to limit the ability of city planners and elected leaders to expand access to affordable housing, thereby allowing Menlo Park to be a place where all members of our community are valued and may live, work, and thrive."
Trustee Dave Ackerman supported the resolution and said it's important to remember that based on the Tinsley program, the district is obligated, under a court order, to take reasonable, feasible measures to remove the effects of segregation.
The Tinsley program came as the result of a lawsuit filed in 1976 by parents in the Ravenswood City School District and neighboring districts. The suit was settled in 1985 by requiring Peninsula school districts to transfer some minority students from the Ravenswood district into their districts each year. The Peninsula districts include Menlo Park, Las Lomitas, Woodside, Portola Valley, Palo Alto, Belmont-Redwood Shores and San Carlos.
A July report from the city says that if it passes, the ballot measure will put the largest number of units in the most marginalized communities.
"The single-family districts are predominantly white, with the exception of the Belle Haven neighborhood," according to the July report. "The ballot measure would effectively prohibit new affordable housing units in single-family areas. Affordable units will then have to be located elsewhere in the city including in the bayfront area near Belle Haven which has the most capacity for affordable units because of higher existing densities.
"The ballot measure can then be seen to continue the same cycle of putting the highest densities and most affordable units in the area of the community that is predominately lower income, marginalized, and communities of color," the report said.
Segrè said the board "had a real opportunity in front of it last night — to make good on our prior (anti-racist resolution) that said we wanted to take action to undo structural inequalities."
"It's unfortunate, that together we were not able to convert our own words into meaningful action," she said in a Friday, Sept. 9, email. "We missed a chance to be courageous and show our children the difference between upstanders and bystanders."
Ackerman was more blunt: "The first time we had to stand up to something about race, we (the board) couldn't do it," he said.
Divisive response to the resolution
District community members passionately for and against the resolution spoke at the meeting.
As of Friday, 216 MPCSD parents, students and constituents have signed an online letter urging the MPCSD board to take a position opposing Measure V.
Jennifer Schindler, a district parent and Menlo Park resident, said the board had the chance to be "role models for our children, not bystanders."
District reading specialist Jacqui Cebrian told the board to rise above the fray and oppose Measure V.
Melissa Cole, a Suburban Park neighborhood resident, questioned why the district is involving itself in issues other than educating children.
"Is it your role to concern yourself about land use and rezoning?" she asked.
Others urged the board to keep its focus on students and not land use planning.
Inception of Measure V
The Flood School site has become a cornerstone of the fight between proponents and opponents of Measure V, despite the bill's citywide effects. There has been heavy debate over a proposal by the Ravenswood City School District to build 90 units of affordable housing for teachers at the vacant campus, which is located in an area zoned for single-family homes and would be directly impacted by the measure. The district is looking to lease the site to develop for staff housing.
Opponents of the Flood site project contend that the district has not explicitly spelled out in its request for proposals that the proposed units would be designated for teachers and staff. The district has stated that they have enough teachers and staff members who want it to fill the units, and that it wouldn't make sense to leave units vacant if they don't fill homes with district staff.
The Ravenswood City School District governing board passed a resolution in early August opposing Measure V.
"This board believes that this same initiative would run afoul of the district’s anti-racist commitments because, as the impartial analysis of this initiative notes, the initiative would continue 'the same cycle of putting the highest densities and most affordable units in the area of the community that is predominantly lower income, marginalized, and communities of color,' specifically in the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park," the resolution states.
A recent district survey showed that just one-third of district staff report having a "safe, secure, and affordable housing option" and 43% are considering leaving district employment due to their housing situation.
The Las Lomitas Elementary School District will consider a similar resolution at its Oct. 5 meeting.
At a Wednesday, Sept. 7, Las Lomitas Elementary School District board meeting, trustees Heather Hopkins and Molly Finn expressed strong support for taking a stand against Measure V.
Hopkins said that since the Las Lomitas district falls within Menlo Park, properties in the city that could provide housing for teachers or staffers would be affected by the measure. For example, it could make it much more difficult to develop housing on properties within district boundaries that are zoned for single family housing, like St. Bede's Episcopal or St. Denis Catholic churches.
"Our No. 1 resource in this school district is our staff and our number one issue is housing," Hopkins said. "This measure would put another barrier in front of building more multifamily housing. In my mind you can't decouple housing and our housing shortage and what we've heard from our staff. Cost of living is so high staff have to live an hour or more away, oftentimes."
Trustee Gautam Nadella said it feels a little awkward to take a position on what a church could do with its property.
"There's just a lot of uncertainty about what we can actually do to benefit (the housing) problems like providing a material amount of housing," he said.
Hopkins noted that the Ravenswood school board stepped outside of its usual boundaries because they feel this issue is so important.
They directed staff to bring a resolution to the board next month for consideration. Hopkins said that waiting a month gives the community a chance to chime in on if it's something the board should weigh in on.