Although Willow Oaks School and the Laurel School Upper Campus are both public elementary schools located just blocks apart in Menlo Park's Willows neighborhood, their facilities, and their student bodies, couldn't be more different.
Upper Laurel, located at 275 Elliott Drive, is a brand-new state-of-the-art school just being completed by the Menlo Park City School District for 315 third- to fifth-grade students.
Willow Oaks, located at 620 Willow Road, was built in 1944 and was last upgraded 25 years ago. The Ravenswood City School District school serves 613 kindergartners through eighth-graders, many of them housed in portables that are up to 45 years old.
While the situation isn't new, what is new is a proposed way for local government to help foster educational equity on the Midpeninsula by making the differences in those schools a little less stark.
On Aug. 23, the Menlo Park City Council is scheduled to discuss the idea, put forward by Councilman Ray Mueller, of forming a new government body that could send some local money to the Ravenswood City School District.
"The intent ... is not to take money away from any child's education, but rather to raise the standard of every child's education so they are on equal footing," Mueller said.
The idea is to form a coalition, for now called the Equity in Education Joint Powers Agency, including the cities of Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, plus San Mateo County and the Ravenswood district. A legal opinion from Eugene Clark-Herrera of the Orrick law firm, who researched the idea without charge, says state law governing joint powers agencies does allow such a coalition.
"It's time that we figured out a way to address this issue as a regional community," Mueller said.
It's not just the facilities at the two neighboring schools that are different. Their students also are very different.
According the latest statistics available on the state's EdData website, in the 2014-15 school year, at Laurel School (which was then a kindergarten to third-grade school), nearly 50 percent of the students were white, 11 percent were still learning English, and less than 9 percent were from families with low enough incomes to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program.
That same school year, at Willow Oaks School in the Ravenswood district, fewer than 1 percent of the students were white (six students to be exact), 65 percent were still learning English, and 93 percent qualified for free and reduced-price lunches, according to EdData. (School officials say almost all students actually qualify for the federal lunch program, but some families won't fill out the paperwork.)
A major factor in making these two public schools so dramatically different, despite being in the same neighborhood of the same city, is that their respective school districts have vastly different resources.
The new Upper Laurel is in the Menlo Park City School District, which has consistently ranked as one of top districts in the state in test scores. The district includes the central part of Menlo Park, parts of Atherton and the unincorporated Menlo Oaks neighborhood.
Willow Oaks is part of the Ravenswood City School District, which consistently reports test scores near the bottom in the state. The district encompasses the Belle Haven neighborhood of Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, and small sections of the Willows neighborhood.
How they're funded
The districts are funded very differently. In the Menlo Park City district, as in the neighboring Las Lomitas, Woodside Elementary, Portola Valley and Palo Alto Unified school districts, assessed property values, and the property taxes associated with them, are so high that those schools get most of their funding from property taxes and other local income. This model, which the state now calls community funding, applies to only about 100 of the wealthier districts in the state.
In the Ravenswood district, however, assessed property values are so much lower that the district gets most of its funding from the state.
What each district spends to educate its students is not dramatically different, partly because the state now gives more money to districts with greater needs -- including those with a greater number of students who are learning English, are from poor families or have learning and physical disabilities.
According to 2014-15 information from EdData, the Ravenswood district spent $13,292 educating each of its 4,216 students, while the Menlo Park district spent $14,321 on each of its 2,904 students.
The differences in the classrooms are wider than the gap indicates. The average teacher salary in the Menlo Park district was more than $35,000 a year higher than that of teachers in the Ravenswood district in the 2014-15 school year, according to EdData. Class size averages were closer: just over 25 in Ravenswood and slightly less than 22 in the Menlo Park district in 2014-15.
But the Ravenswood district, because of its demographics, has to provide additional services to its students, including up to three meals a day and snacks for students, and bus transportation to and from schools, as well as extra help for English learners and those with learning and physical disabilities.
The bigger difference in the two districts' financial situations lies in the funding that comes directly from local property owners in the form of property taxes and parcel taxes.
EdData shows that since 1990, voters in the Menlo Park City School District have passed $136 million in bond measures for facilities, as well as six parcel taxes. District property owners are currently paying $852 in annual parcel taxes.
In the Ravenswood district, voters have approved $42 million in bonds and three parcel taxes since 1990. District property owners are currently paying an annual $196 parcel tax.
An additional problem is that the assessed property value in a district limits how much debt that district can raise by asking voters to pass bond measures. According to the report on the legality of a new joint powers agreement, the Ravenswood district is projected to have additional bonding capacity for issuing new bonds of only $25 million over the next 10 years. The report says that currently, on a per-pupil basis, the Menlo Park City School District's bonding capacity is five times that of Ravenswood.
That means that while voters in the Ravenswood district this year overwhelmingly approved a $26 million bond measure, unless the assessed property values in the district increase much more than projected, the district can't ask taxpayers to approve more than an additional $25 million in bond measures, no matter what its needs are.
The Ravenswood district needs far more than $51 million, even to pay for urgent repairs and safety upgrades.
In 2015 the district took a close look at all its facilities, most of which are at least 55 years old. A facilities master plan that resulted found more than $69 million in "critical" needs, including costs for meeting current code and disability access requirements, student safety, mechanical systems, and structural integrity.
It would take another nearly $5 million to deal with hazardous materials on the campuses, and $213.5 million more to modernize classrooms for current teaching needs, such as providing computers so children can take the latest standardized tests, the study shows. Doing what the study calls "non-critical but desired work to each school" would cost nearly an additional $45 million.
It adds up to nearly $333 million, in a district that can't ask its voters for more than $51 million.
Some of the critical needs identified in the master plan were taken care of this summer, thanks to the $26 million bond measure approved by district voters in June. That measure, which needed only 55 percent voter approval, received nearly 90 percent, which Gloria Hernandez-Goff, the district's superintendent, said is a record for the state.
Worse than it sounds?
The numbers in the master plan may not actually show how bleak the situation is in the district. Last winter the Costano Elementary School in East Palo Alto had to close two days before winter break because a gas leak meant the school couldn't be kept warm enough to hold classes.
The district tried to get by using portable electric heaters, but the aged wiring couldn't handle the load.
One of the 11 portable classrooms at the Ravenswood district's Belle Haven School, in Menlo Park, was condemned by the state last winter, according to Mahendra Chahal, the district's facilities director.
More such condemnations are a real worry in a district where the facilities master plan says some portables are 45 years old. "The life span of a portable is 25 years," it says.
Despite the fact that the report recommends replacing deteriorating portables with new permanent classrooms instead of attempting repairs, the district doesn't have enough money to do that. So this summer it put new roofs on a number of portables, replaced rotten foundations and floors, and stripped off and replaced rotted siding.
"It's like a hole in a dike," Superintendent Hernandez-Goff said of the efforts to keep the aging school buildings in usable condition.
Chahal said that repair work on the portables cost less than $25,000 per portable, while a new portable would cost at least $110,000 to buy and install.
Permanent replacement buildings aren't even in the picture for now.
"Where would we get the money to rebuild?" asks Superintendent Hernandez-Goff.