It was an evening of 90-second statements, one after another. The three candidates running for election to the board of the Sequoia Union High School District fielded questions from an audience of about 30 in the district's Redwood City offices on Thursday (Oct. 2), courtesy of the League of Women Voters of South San Mateo County.
The questions to challenger Georgia Jack and incumbents Alan Sarver and Chris Thomsen addressed topics that were broad -- statewide changes in teaching methods and testing standards known as Common Core -- and narrow -- whether the upcoming re-examination of the high-school-assignment map would keep students from unincorporated North Fair Oaks at Menlo-Atherton High School.
The Sequoia district is facing steep enrollment growth over the next seven years. For at least the next year, the board will be grappling with how to approach building physical capacity and financial wherewithal to accommodate students now in elementary school, as well as new students from multi-family housing being built in Redwood City and Menlo Park.
A redrawn map is a near certainty so as to more evenly distribute among the four comprehensive high schools students from communities that have surges in enrollment. New 400-student magnet high schools are also in the mix.
Mr. Thomsen and Mr. Sarver referred frequently to their accomplishments over the past four years, including a more robust Internet technology department, significant improvements in professional development for teachers, and greater collaboration among teaching disciplines and, significantly, between the Sequoia district and its "feeder" elementary school districts.
Ms. Jack touched on how district administration could improve. She returned repeatedly to the importance of buy-in from the community at large by deep and wide outreach across the district.
On a question about the stubborn issue of the achievement gap, she noted the high unemployment rate in East Palo Alto among high school graduates and the differences in the educations experienced by her two children: one received an OK education, the other less than OK, she said.
Some questions elicited different takes from the challenger and the two incumbents. Why, one questioner wanted to know, does the Sequoia district have a budget reserve of 20 percent?
Some it is redistributed property tax revenues from the dissolution of redevelopment districts, and is intended for unexpected expenses and for Common Core implementation, the incumbents said. The district has an unfunded health insurance debt that has to be paid.
"Yes we do have reserves," Mr. Thomsen said. "We need to be aware of it as one-time money. We need to use it for the Common Core."
"I have wondered about this reserve," Ms. Jack said, "because it is significantly larger (than in surrounding districts). I think many of them would be very happy to have a 6 percent to 8 percent reserve. It's important that it be explained in full detail in public meeting."
Because properties within the Sequoia district tend to have much higher than average property values, the district has the privilege of avoiding state augmentation of its revenues and gets to keep them all. But these revenues do not rise with a rising population of students. How might the district cope with staffing expenses as enrollment rises, an audience member asked?
Property values tend to rise by about 5 percent annually, which exceeds the cost of living, Mr. Thomsen said.
Mr. Sarver said he sees enrollment growth outstripping growth in property tax revenues. Small magnet high schools could help in terms of being flexible, he said, but the district may have to consider asking voters for a parcel tax.
Is 5 percent annual growth realistic, Ms. Jack asked. It all comes down to programs and staffing and what we want for our students, she said.