Although no formal action was taken, Menlo Park City School District board members agreed on two key issues they discussed last night (May 13): The district must ask voters to pass a bond measure to build new facilities on its O'Connor campus, and the private school that now occupies that campus should be allowed to remain almost a year longer than its contract allows while the district plans the new campus.
The board decided earlier this year that it must take back the campus at 275 Elliot Drive in Menlo Park, the former site of the district's O'Connor School, to address rapidly increasing enrollment in its three elementary schools. In October, the district notified the German-American International School (GAIS), which has leased the campus since 1991, that it might have to terminate the lease before June 2016, when it was set to expire.
The district did just that in April, using the termination clause in the contract to end the agreement, effective June 2014. But faced with the prospect of having to close the school down because of the short timeframe in which it would have to find and open a new campus, the private school lobbied the district to allow it to stay at least until June 2015.
Last night, board members indicated that, because of the construction schedule all of them agreed would be best a three-year period that would prepare the campus to open for the 2016-17 school year GAIS might be able to stay put until spring 2015, when construction on new facilities would begin.
The board directed Superintendent Maurice Ghysels to meet with GAIS officials to discuss a lease extension. With construction projected to begin in May 2015, the district is likely to extend the lease only until April or May of that year if an agreement can be worked out .
Although board members agreed that the new school should have facilities comparable to those of the district's other four schools, eliminating options for minor renovation of the existing, 10-classroom building and the use of portable classrooms, tough decisions are yet to be made. That includes what class levels will be taught there K-5 or 3-5, for example.
There appeared to be consensus that the campus should house a neighborhood school, with "choice" programs included. The option of making the campus a school of choice such as language immersion or science and technology programs exclusively appears to be off the table.
They also reached consensus that the options to house only K-1 grade levels were not acceptable, leaving open the options for a K-5 or 3-5 campus that would enroll about 360 students.
But perhaps the toughest decisions will involve the scale of the building project, and by extension, the size of the bond the district will ask voters to approve, probably in November of this year. Ahmad Sheikholeslami, the district's facilities director, presented a list of options, along with costs, estimating the price tag of a K-5 or 3-5 campus with only permanent facilities ranging from $13 million to $21.75 million. Those figures are in today's dollars, Mr. Sheikholeslami emphasized.
Several district parents who spoke at the meeting not only supported a bond measure to pay for modern facilities comparable to those on other district campuses, they said they were at the ready to lead the community campaign to convince voters to approve the bond.
Board members agreed that flexibility should be a key factor in designing the new school, giving the district breathing space to address future needs, and that the facilities should be comparable to those on the district's other campuses. But how much will that cost?
When the figure of $30 million was mentioned as a possible bond issue an amount likely to cover the most extensive option in 2016 dollars at least one board member balked. "I believe we should do new facilities, and take the short-term pain," trustee Jeff Child said. But he said he was struggling with the idea of spending $30 million on a school for an estimated 360 students, and urged the staff to "sharpen the pencil" in planning the school.
The district will hold a special community meeting to continue discussions on the new school on May 29.