San Carlos considers new schools for fourth and fifth grades if bond measure passes

In San Carlos, Measure H seeks to fund new schools and repair current ones, such as new paint and gates here at Central Middle School. (photo Ryan Eshoff/Peninsula Press)

As part of a staggered bell schedule at Brittan Acres Elementary School, fourth-graders are dismissed 20 minutes after their younger peers. In a couple of years, though, the oldest crop of students might be gone altogether.

On Tuesday, San Carlos residents will vote on Measure H, a bond measure that school district officials are banking on to advance their timeline for building new school facilities to ease crowding. The measure, which needs a 55 percent supermajority to pass, would generate $72 million in bonds “to improve, repair, and equip” San Carlos elementary and middle school facilities.

The bonds would be paid back through an increase in property taxes. Opponents of the measure point to high interest rates on the bond money, as well as uncertainty as to where and how the funds would be allocated. Some parents in the district also worry about the challenges of new grade configurations at the schools.

The district’s facilities maintenance strategy includes plans to build a pair of schools to house fourth- and fifth-graders.  “We want to be smaller,” Brittan Acres Principal John Triska said of his own school. “As a principal, a smaller school is optimal.”

The proposed schools for grades 4 and 5 would be the first of their kind in San Mateo County.

Seth Rosenblatt, president of the San Carlos school board, said there are many different grade configurations across the country. What matters in terms of the quality of education, he said, is how schools manage their enrollment and facilities.

A 2007 article on educational trends by Kenneth R. Stevenson, of the University of South Carolina’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policies, argued that “substantial research indicates that each transition to a new school has a negative effect on student learning.” Stevenson acknowledged that more and more schools systems were breaking their elementary schools in two so that teachers at the lower levels could focus more on early childhood education.

The San Carlos School District serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade. There are four elementary schools (kindergarten through fourth grade), two middle schools (grades five through eight) and a K-8 Charter Learning Center. Enrollment reached  3,297 during the 2011-2012 school year, up more than 18 percent from the 2,782 students in 2006-2007.

“A lot of young families keep moving to San Carlos largely because of the reputation of the schools,” Rosenblatt said.

While a portion of the potential Measure H money would be allocated to fund school-specific improvements, much of it would likely go toward the construction of new schools to ease the district’s crowding issues.

Last school year, fourth-graders made up more than 20 percent of the enrollment at Brittan Acres. Moving that grade to a new school with fifth-graders – a quarter of the current middle school population – would essentially negate the nearly 20 percent increase in enrollment that the district has seen in recent years and is expected to continue facing.

Meanwhile, schools have accommodated additional students in a variety of ways. Brittan Acres, for example, has classrooms in portable units on its upper playground, an area removed from the main campus.

The most likely locations for the proposed fourth- and fifth-grade schools are on the current campuses of Central and Tierra Linda middle schools, which would essentially cede their fifth-graders to the new schools. The middle school sites have more available land that can be used for building than the elementary school sites, according to officials.

While many parents are supportive of the concept, there have been concerns about fourth-graders being at the same location as eighth-graders, as well as about new schools worsening traffic flow around an expanded campus. Then there is the issue of an added financial burden, especially since the impact of a 2005 bond measure is still being felt.

“I’m not very excited about the prospect of taking my kids to new schools,” said Sharon Bilker, a parent of two elementary school-age children who said she would likely vote “no” on the measure. “Yeah, I think there are some repairs that can be done, but hopefully for less than the $70 million we’d be paying. That’s a lot of money.”

Triska, the Brittan Acres principal, noted that the use of the bond money would be a bit untraditional. “Every school I’ve ever been at before, when we do a bond measure, it’s to build a larger multipurpose room or a gym, something the community can rally behind and say, ‘Oh, we need that,’” he said. “(This time) it’s a little different and sometimes awkward; we’re saying to our community, ‘We’re going to put kids on a new facility that isn’t here and yet, you know we really want you to appreciate that.’ ”

Rosenblatt’s education-based blog features a comment from a person identified only as “Concerned Mom,” who wrote that she has heard from several parents who “are already looking at private schools in case Measure H passes and the [school district] goes ahead with their plans to move 4th graders up to middle school.”

Although the possible fourth- and fifth-grade schools would likely share sites with middle schools if the plan goes through, they would have separate school names, principals and administrations.

The other option on the table is to build an additional K-4 school, but that would take a much longer time to fully populate, and wouldn’t solve the problem of crowded middle schools, officials said.

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