After a lengthy debate over different options for closing two elementary schools, the Ravenswood school board voted on Thursday to move Willow Oaks Elementary School students to Belle Haven Elementary School in Menlo Park and Brentwood Academy students to Costaño School in East Palo Alto this fall.
The Los Robles-Ronald McNair Academy will remain intact, including its dual-immersion program. There will be no change to Ravenswood Middle School.
The board unanimously supported the Willow Oaks-Belle Haven merger but the Brentwood-Costaño consolidation initially failed in a split vote. Trustees Stephanie Fitch and Tamara Sobomehin supported it, Vice President Sharifa Wilson and Gaona-Mendoza did not and President Ana Maria Pulido abstained.
After the deadlock, however, Pulido changed her vote in favor of the merger and it passed in a 3-2 vote. She said that while she disagrees with moving Brentwood, the facilities at Costaño are of higher quality and worth maintaining.
Starting this fall, current Brentwood kindergarten through fourth grade students will attend Costaño; current Willow Oaks kindergarten through fourth grade students will go to Belle Haven; and Los Robles-McNair, Belle Haven and Costaño students will stay at their current schools.
The board's final action aligned with staff's recommendation, though it was unclear throughout most of the meeting whether there would be sufficient support among the trustees for that plan. They discussed other scenarios, including moving Costaño to Brentwood, Willow Oaks to Belle Haven and Brentwood to Los Robles-McNair. They debated the impact on students' access to neighborhood schools, transportation and safety concerns; the ability for teachers to collaborate at smaller sites; and the potential for rental revenue from different sites, among other issues.
The K-8 district began discussing school closures in earnest this year in the face of declining enrollment and budget cuts. All of Ravenswood's elementary schools are operating at close to half capacity this year, and the district's overall enrollment is just over 2,000 students.
The district is aiming to cut $1.35 million from next year's budget. Closing a single school represents cost savings of about $400,000.
The district solicited public feedback on school mergers this fall through community meetings, district office hours and an online survey.
Interim Superintendent Gina Sudaria said previously that the final recommendation, announced in early December, took into consideration four priorities identified by community members and board members through the input-gathering process: location of schools, including keeping neighborhood schools and ensuring the three remaining schools are spread out so more students have a school nearby; minimizing the number of students impacted; considering the facility's size and condition; and protecting special programs such as dual-immersion, arts and mental health support.
Other advantages to this consolidation plan, she noted in a past presentation, are that Ravenswood can keep a school in Menlo Park, avoid further disruption for Los Robles students who recently moved to the McNair site, minimize the use of portable buildings and ensure there are enough classrooms for all projected students, with room to grow in the future.
One downside is that Willow Oaks students will have to take a bus to Belle Haven; however, more Willow Oaks students already ride a bus — 175 — than at other schools, according to the district. And while Brentwood students will have to move schools, they already are more distributed throughout the district than other elementary students.
Brentwood and Willow Oaks families will be able to choose to enroll at a different school if they wish, and students at other schools can choose to transfer after Brentwood and Willow Oaks students are accommodated. The district has said it will provide buses if needed for students to attend their new schools.
Any students who are new to the district next fall will be able to choose which elementary school to attend.
Staff at the affected schools will generally move with students, though principals, office staff and potentially custodians will be cut, according to the original staff proposal. Classified staff who will be affected will be notified in February.
The district is contractually required to distribute by this Friday, Jan. 10, forms for teachers to indicate whether they plan to come back to Ravenswood in the fall and if so, which schools and grade levels they prefer.
The district plans to explore leasing the Brentwood and Willow Oaks campuses to bring in additional revenue, and to address an expansion request from KIPP charter school in East Palo Alto.