Had public comment been darts, Sequoia Union High School District Superintendent James Lianides would have had puncture wounds aplenty after more than two hours on the stage of the Performing Arts Center at Menlo-Atherton High School on Monday (May 13).
Mr. Lianides, with district board members Olivia Martinez and Allen Weiner accompanying him, was there to open a discussion in the M-A community on what should be done at M-A and the three other comprehensive high schools to make room between now and 2020 for a large cohort of children currently in kindergarten throughout the district.
Based on a consultant's report from June 2012, the district's current enrollment of 8,300 would grow to 10,000 by the 2020-21 school year, Mr Lianides said in a letter. The number is considered highly reliable because the process doesn't require much speculation, given the kindergarten numbers. The estimate does not take into account new housing -- and new families -- over that eight-year period. In any case, if the estimates turn out to be incorrect, they will very likely be low, Mr. Lianides said.
In Menlo Park, there's been talk of 1,500 new homes, and Redwood City is expanding as well, Mr. Lianides said. "At some point, that could have an effect on our enrollment."
"We're just in a situation where we're trying to address an enrollment pattern," he said. "We know these kids are coming." The high school district won't know what facilities to build until the numbers are resolved, but enrollment is rising every year. "It's going to really accelerate in a few years," he added.
About 100 parents, most from the Las Lomitas Elementary School District, peppered Mr. Lianides with questions and comments around a theme of not splintering Las Lomitas district students away from M-A. A primary concern appears to be the Las Lomitas district's proximity to Woodside High School and Woodside High's notable unused capacity compared to the other three high schools. Some parents also noted that Woodside's academic performance is not on a par with M-A.
Controversy appears unavoidable as the district board wrestles with four competing talking points, or tenets:
■ The current boundary maps that connect high schools with neighborhoods were drawn in 1983 and may need to be redrawn. To the extent possible, the district should strive to evenly distribute the students, with about 2,400 at each of the four schools.
■ There are feeder schools in East Palo Alto and North Fair Oaks that divide the school population among three high schools. As a rule, the district is proposing a limit of two high schools per feeder school so as to strengthen feeder-school/high-school relationships and preserve communities as the students move along.
■ The ethnicity at Carlmont High School is becoming increasingly white and Asian, so preserving socio-economic diversity has become and will be a priority.
■ While feeder school communities are important, so is school choice and the district would like to continue open enrollment, a program in which one in four students now participate.
After, and during, his presentation, Mr. Lianides fielded questions and comments.
"It would be nice to reframe the conversation more around 'We've got a challenge here,'" said one parent. "Don't talk about redrawing right away."
"To make some arbitrary boundary and make some feeder numbers work" doesn't make any sense, another parent said. Arbitrary boundary lines would affect property values. Make that a tenet, this parent said. "Oh my gosh," one parent said, "we've invested so much in the community and so much in our homes and we feel like we're being hit in the head."
It's not hostility that's permeating the room here, added another parent. It's fear.
The Las Lomitas community is "an organically derived fragile ecosystem," said one woman, who said she was speaking for her husband. "It's grown organically into an amazing system that works. It works because we're all together. I anticipate that Woodside (High School) will grow into something like that."
"If you remove a small part (of this ecosystem)," she continued, "it has the potential to collapse the whole thing."
"I kind of think this is an ongoing set of comments," Mr. Lianides replied, and turned to the idea of a new campus. The cost would be $200 million, money the Sequoia district does not have. Then there's the matter of a site. "Where would you even find available land where you're not designing a bell (class) schedule around low tide?" he added.
Given that the projections for M-A are right around the proposed average of 2,400 students, and the importance of keeping the Las Lomitas community together, why not tinker with the boundaries and feeder school communities of the other three high schools and leave M-A to absorb what it will, one woman asked.
A larger school, then? "As one trustee, I am completely open to that possibility," board member Martinez said. "We want to do the best thing for all the students."
"Current research says that smaller schools are better for kids," she added.
"we're listening very carefully," she said. "Whenever you make a decision, you have people who are happy and people who are unhappy
Several parents wondered why Mr. Lianides spoke first of having students evenly distributed.
Board member Weiner took that one. "There's no ranking of the tenets," he said. "We recognize, as you do, ... that there are tradeoffs and tensions between these (tenets). There's no decision that been taken. ... We have been trying to take into account what's best for your kids, what's best for my kids, and what's best for all the kids in the district."