In prior years, the district could depend on the Atherton and Menlo Park residents to support whatever parcel tax or bond issue was put before them. But last year a poll found that taxpayers are not eager to tack another $300 or $400 a year on to their property taxes so the school can make room for current enrollment growth estimates that will top out at 172 more students in 2017 than previously thought.
If such a bulge materializes, it means the district will either have to add up to a half dozen or more portable classrooms, or build additional classrooms that would cost millions of dollars. And although the district leases out two sites to Phillips Brooks School in Menlo Park and Woodland School in Ladera, the loss of rent from either one would probably be even worse for the bottom line.
The survey did not find that a majority of potential voters opposed a parcel tax, just that the two-thirds approval necessary for such a tax to pass was not there. Without that option, trustees have given Superintendent Eric Hartwig until June to come up with some options to handle the enrollment growth and a $1.5 million budget shortfall from last year.
The district was caught in the enrollment bind when an earlier demographic study showed flattening growth after 2015, which the district thought it could accommodate with portable classrooms until that time. But a second, more recent study, showed a much higher growth rate, beyond the number of students that easily would fit into portables.
These are serious numbers, and coupled with the $1.5 million debt from last year, it appears that either parents will have to ante up more support or students will be squeezed into larger classes. Another, riskier option would be for the district to mount a massive public relations campaign to convince district taxpayers that schools are a good investment.
But before taking the latter approach, the district must show that it has done all it can to cut costs. Even taxpayers of the Las Lomitas district, who in the past have given generously every time they were asked, are wary of adding more school levies to their property tax bill.
In the end, the same argument — that strong Las Lomitas schools keep property values high — will convince voters to accept another parcel tax to go with the $311 annual levy currently on the books, or taxpayer outrage will send the district down to its first defeat in years.
If that happens, voters may also be in the mood to at least order a study of consolidation with the adjoining Menlo Park City School District. Some functions of the districts have been merged voluntarily, but a full consolidation would cut overhead costs (one superintendent instead of two) and perhaps save money in other ways. And, it could bring two of the top-performing elementary school districts in the state together, a combination that could pay off for students of both districts.