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S E C T I O N 2 Schools NOVEMBER 18, 2009 ALSO INSIDE ■ N E W S O F L O C A L S C H O O L S , S T U D E N T S , T E AC H E R S , A N D PA R E N T S . COMMUNITY 27 |CALENDAR 29 |CLASSIFIEDS 30 Bursting at the seams Despite a spate of new construction, growing enrollment might induce the Menlo Park school district to open a new school By Andrea Gemmet Almanac Staff Writer I f closing a school is the hardest decision a school board ever has to make, then the second most difficult is deciding whether to open a new school. Next month, the Menlo Park City School District’s board of trustees is going to have to decide if growing student enrollment justifies the expense and difficulty of opening an elementary school at the old O’Connor site. It’s a decision with farreaching implications. Since 1991, the O’Connor campus at 275 Elliott Drive in Menlo Park has been leased to the German-American International School, and the Menlo Park district faces a Jan. 1 deadline to notify the private school if its lease will end in June 2011 or will be extended for another five years. There is the financial cost of losing the annual rent that the German-American International School (GAIS) pays, and the cost of hiring administrators and staff to run a new elementary school. There is the capital cost of improving the O’Connor site’s old buildings and bringing them up to par with the rest of the district. There’s a tricky task of figuring out who would go to the new school, located in the Willows neighborhood. If the district doesn’t open a new school, officials will have to figure out how to find room for the mushrooming student population on existing campuses that are already pressed for space. As it is, Oak Knoll and Encinal are much larger than most neighboring elementary schools, and for the next several years at least, they are expected to keep growing. “This is the most important decision of the year, no doubt about it,” said Superintendent Ken Ranella. Dollars and sense The easiest piece of the puzzle is figuring out the cost to the district. Much harder is figuring out where that money would come from. It’s not a great time to be a California school, as far as funding is concerned. Like most districts, Menlo Park is faced with cuts in state funding and flattening property tax revenues that aren’t keeping up with increased expenses. As a basic aid district, Menlo Park doesn’t receive additional state funding when its student body grows — it has to make do with the same amount of money divided among an increasing number of students. Per-student revenue in the district is down 4 percent this school year, and it’s projected to go down another 4 percent next year, said Mr. Ranella. “Hearing how tight revenue is going to be, you can imagine that funding challenges and the financial impact is a primary concern,” said board member Laura Rich. “The idea of taking on additional financial burdens is of primary concern to the board.” The cost of modernizing the buildings, a one-time expense, is still unknown, but the district has about $1.75 million set aside for the task. On an ongoing basis, there’s the loss of more than $300,000 in annual rental income and an estimated cost of more than $300,000 to run the school and hire administrators and office staff. Board member Jeff Child said that if the decision to open another school was purely financial, the decision would be easy — why commit to spending more money? But if the alternative is putting more children into each class because there aren’t enough classrooms, that’s a different matter. “First and foremost, we can’t let O’Connor drive curriculum decisions inadvertently,” he said. “Notwithstanding the financial side, if we do not renew the lease, we’re not locking ourselves into class sizes that we don’t want.” How many more students? Figuring out how many students the district will enroll next year, in five years and in 10 years, is both a science and an art. The district’s master plan figured on a maximum elementary student enrollment of 1,800, a number that guided the size of the new classroom and facilities construction that’s currently under way at Encinal and Oak Knoll. However, that number has already been exceeded — there are 1,855 elementary students enrolled this year, not including middle school students at Hillview — and it’s expected to grow. The master plan calls for the option of re-opening O’Connor if enrollment goes beyond 1,800. “We’re 55 (students) over our master plan, but our class sizes are a bit over, so they are absorbed into our current facilities,” Superintendent Ranella said. “I don’t think we’ll have a problem housing our students next year. The problem is the growth projection — it’s up until 2013 See SCHOOLS, page 26 ‘ This is the most important decision of the year, no doubt about it. ’ SUPERINTENDENT KEN R ANELLA OF THE M ENLO PARK CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT Laurie Sobel, with sons Alexander, 5, and Joshua Pfistners, 3, walks into the preschool at the GermanAmerican International School in Menlo Park. The private school might lose its lease if overcrowding in the Menlo Park City School District compels officials to open a new elementary school at its O’Connor site. Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac November 18, 2009 N The Almanac N25

The Almanac 11.18.2009 - Section 2

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