State board denies Willows residents' petition to switch school districts | September 12, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

Almanac

News - September 12, 2018

State board denies Willows residents' petition to switch school districts

by Kate Bradshaw

Near the border with East Palo Alto, one street in Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood experiences a split on school days: Kids who live on the south side of O'Connor Street are designated to attend schools in the Menlo Park City School District, and some need only walk around the block to get to the newly completed Laurel School Upper Campus. Meanwhile, kids who live on the north side of the street are assigned to schools in the Ravenswood City School District — and in some cases, their parents prefer to send them to private schools.

That split will remain following a Sept. 6 decision by the California State Board of Education to deny a petition by residents to transfer 31 households on the north side of O'Connor Street from the Ravenswood district into the Menlo Park district. The board voted 10-0 to deny the petition, with vice president Ilene Straus abstaining.

Citing concerns that the proposed transfer could promote segregation, and could have adverse impacts on the fiscal health of the Ravenswood City School District, the education board ruled on what has been a decades-long tension between the school districts and residents.

It's not the first time those households have tried to switch districts, according to a report by the California Department of Education. The homes on the north side of O'Connor Street (whose addresses run from 235 to 295 O'Connor St.) were annexed into the city of Menlo Park in 1983. In 1992, owners of the O'Connor Street properties tried to transfer from the Ravenswood district to the Menlo Park district, but their petition was denied by the committee that controls such boundaries, the San Mateo County Committee on School District Organization. When the residents appealed the petition's denial, the state Board of Education unanimously affirmed the county's decision. At the time, the state board found the petition ran contrary to a court ruling to decrease what it referred to as "racial isolation" in the school districts.

More than two decades later, in December 2014, residents led by three primary petitioners — Susan Stacy Keller, John Barksdale and Lansing Scriven — submitted a new petition seeking the same thing: to become part of the Menlo Park school district.

But in March 2015, their petition was unanimously denied by the county Committee on School District Organization. The committee determined that the petition did not meet three of nine requirement thresholds: that a transfer between districts not promote racial or ethnic discrimination or segregation; not increase school facility costs; and not cause a "substantial negative effect" on the finances of the affected districts.

The petitioners then appealed the committee's decision to the state.

During the Sept. 6 hearing, a number of the O'Connor Street residents seeking the transfer spoke of their cohesion with the Willows neighborhood. Resident Ken Hoyle said that his children play on sports teams with other kids in the neighborhood since those teams are within the boundaries of Menlo Park, but added that his kids can't go to school with those same teammates.

"When we played Little League at the Upper Laurel School, I threw a baseball to my house from the school. That is how close we are," he said.

Tim Fox, who introduced himself as San Mateo County's desegregation lawyer — "which is something I didn't think that a person needed to do in the 21st century," he added — opposed the appeal because "granting the petition would isolate students in Ravenswood," he said.

Others said that the Ravenswood district has suffered financially from previous de-annexations, and questioned whether the motives of the O'Connor Street petitioners were tied to goals of increasing property values.

"Please don't give our assets to Menlo Park, one of the richest districts in the state," one East Palo Alto resident asked of the board.

A desegregation mandate

The state's report asserts that the proposed transfer would go against the "spirit" of the 1979 court ruling that led to the creation of the Tinsley voluntary transfer program. That program allows minority Ravenswood students to transfer out of the district to attend other local school districts. The court ruling stated the program should "further equal educational opportunities" and reduce "minority racial isolation among or between the students of the respondent districts' elementary schools."

"The promotion of diversity was supposed to be a two-way street," Ravenswood district Superintendent Gloria Hernandez Goff told The Almanac. However, she added, the reality is anything but: About 1,200 current K-8 students have left the Ravenswood district to attend schools in other districts. Zero K-8 students transfer into the Ravenswood district, Hernandez Goff said.

"If you look at the Tinsley students, they are all Ravenswood students," she said. `

Fiscal impacts

Previous transfers of territory out of the Ravenswood district have "severely impacted the fiscal health of the district," Hernandez-Goff said.

As the district has gotten smaller, she said, it's become a "little hub of poverty in the midst of Silicon Valley."

Even if none of the households on O'Connor Street sends kids to the Ravenswood district, she noted, having the Menlo Park homes located in the Ravenswood district boosts the district's assessed property values, since those values in Menlo Park tend to be higher than those in East Palo Alto.

Having higher assessed values boosts the district's bonding capacity, which makes possible higher levels of funding from bond measures to finance projects, such as improving school facilities.

According to the state's report, the bonding capacity per enrolled student in the Ravenswood district is about $11,233, whereas in the Menlo Park district, it's $54,416, nearly five times greater.

Because there are more existing parcel taxes in Menlo Park, the transfer would have resulted in losses to the Ravenswood district of about $6,000 annually, while the Menlo Park district would have gained about $25,000 annually, according to the report. Even with the increases, because the Menlo Park district is funded through property taxes alone, it's not expected that the costs to educate new students from that area would have been covered.

A bigger problem?

The authors also included, among other reasons in their recommendation to deny the appeal, the fact that approving the appeal could result in encouraging larger portions of Menlo Park to seek transfer into the Menlo Park district — which would have more substantial fiscal impacts to the Ravenswood district. The Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park has recently also expressed interest in, and circulated a petition in favor of, leaving the Ravenswood district.

State education board member Bruce Holaday explained before his vote that while the decision was a "tough one," he supported the department's recommendation to deny the appeal. "Moving any houses out of Ravenswood at this point — after all of these years and all of these problems — does increase the concentration of (the) minority population in Ravenswood, and does increase segregation," he said.

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