The superintendent of the Ravenswood City School District, Gloria Hernandez-Goff, announced Thursday that she plans to re-enter conversations with other local jurisdictions about a new way to raise money for the school district.
The district, which is based in East Palo Alto and serves about 3,400 students in that city and eastern Menlo Park, is one of the "lowest-funded" in San Mateo County, according to Hernandez-Goff. The district has more students who are from low-income families, experiencing housing instability and learning English than other area districts.
The plan, first discussed in earnest in July 2016 and proposed by Menlo Park councilman Ray Mueller, is to work with other local jurisdictions to create a joint powers agency that could increase funding for in the Ravenswood City School District. The Menlo Park City Council appointed Mueller and Councilwoman Catherine Carlton to a subcommittee to study the matter further.
The plans got as far as convening a meeting between stakeholders to learn more about the idea, but the initiative was soon put on hold. According to Hernandez-Goff, at the time, it was too near the next round of elections, plus the district was focused on its latest project to develop a new middle school, which launched this fall.
Recently the matter was discussed during a public meeting about education quality in the Menlo Park, convened by Menlo Park Mayor Kirsten Keith. Joe Ross, a member of the San Mateo County Board of Education, said he supported looking into the joint powers agency.
Unlike many of the school districts on the Peninsula, the Ravenswood City School District does not get enough money to fund its schools through local property taxes, so it relies on the state to provide a base level of funding per student. In addition, state law limits how much the district can raise with bond measures based on the assessed value of properties in the district.
Forming the joint powers agency would require approval by the Ravenswood school board, the Menlo Park City Council and the governing boards of other jurisdictions that choose to participate. Mueller has proposed that the counties of San Mateo and Santa Clara and the cities of East Palo Alto and Palo Alto might participate. Participating agencies would decide how to support the school district, and where funding might come from.
"Getting everybody together is the first step," Hernandez-Goff said.
Asked why cities and counties might provide financial support for a school district, Mueller pointed out that the district's boundaries were drawn to put people with "the least resources" in the district. The result, he said, is inequity that has happened for decades.
"These kids are our kids," he said. "In the Silicon Valley … with all this economic wealth, if we can't figure out how to come together and address this, where else are you going to make it work?"
Though talks are still preliminary, Mueller and Hernandez-Goff both talked about the need for facility improvements as a priority for the joint powers agency. According to a 2015 Ravenswood school district facilities master plan, it would cost the district $330 million to bring facilities up to code, address hazardous materials and modernize classrooms. About $100 million of that is for basic needs, Hernandez-Goff said in an interview.
In June 2016, the school district passed a $26 million bond measure with 87.2 percent voter support. But due to the district's bonding capacity (calculated using assessed property values), the district can't ask taxpayers to approve more than an additional $25 million in bond measures, no matter what its needs are.
Improving school facilities is an important part of helping to boost student performance, Hernandez-Goff said.
For example, she said, revenue from the school district's $26 million bond measure will fund dedicated space for science labs at the new middle school to support a broadened science curriculum. Currently, the district uses portable scientific equipment, and the curriculum and instruction lag behind local schools that have the facilities to help students run more sophisticated experiments, she said.
Another planned facility improvement is to dedicate space for a soundproof music room so that students in music class don't disturb other classrooms.