A Tale of Two Districts

Let's combine all our districts into one unified K-12 district!! Or the reasons why this is not possible.

I am fascinated with the range of emotion that our Redwood City Elementary School District leaders inspire in people.

Of late, I have become confused and think I might be living in a third-world country where government bureaucrats actually do wield power, and frequently are tainted by corruption. But then I woke up and realized that actually I exist in a democracy which, while slow to respond to public issues, mostly means that any actual government agency corruption is – when it can be proven – generally petty – with the town of Bell being the most extreme example of an exception of breaching fiduciary duty.

Last I checked Redwood City is certainly not Bell.

And I realize that because I am not out to impale our local elementary school district administrators, teachers, parents, or students on pikes at the city walls, the perception for some is that I am an apologist for a rotation of thoughts, including: the culture of mediocrity, city booster club, helicopter parents, tax and spend liberals, or general tree huggers.

Whereas in actuality I recognize that the world is frequently imperfect because it is governed by people, who by their nature tend to want to do the right and/or expedient thing to solve a problem or address an issue, but for a variety of reasons have their good intentions misinterpreted or misapplied.

I realize this means that I can accept ambiguity and, further, that I am willing to allow processes to run to an endpoint to resolve a situation. This means that Rick Santorum and I can never be friends.

That said, beyond my inability to embrace a certain Joe Friday point of view, I can see that pillorying does seem to be alive and well, and living in the Redwood City Patch. Thankfully, the rule of law still exists – though at points recently it feels like even due process has been abandoned. But I hold to the values of these United States and am pretty sure it’s still a trial by judge and jury, otherwise a veritable bevy of Hester Prynne’s might be wandering about, and I just haven’t see the comeback of Puritan garb, yet.

But in a way I am rather sympathetic to two Patch posters who have posited the idea of combining the Redwood City Elementary K-8 district with the high school district. I do have to agree with the idea on the face of it because it feels like it would be a very sensible thing to do. Not for the reasons that at least one ascribes to it, which is to demolish the K-8 district merely to rout the administration and possibly some parents and students.

But, more because it would seem like having a continuum of educational services kindergarten through grade 12 would most benefit students, especially students who are constantly failed by both districts.

However, as I mentioned earlier, the world is rather imperfect, and when it comes to the idea of merging these two schools districts, what seems on the surface like a logical, rational, reasonable exercise would actually turn into one of the most divisive battles since…well the current GOP primaries.



For starters, the kindergarten – 8th grade district, aka the Redwood City School District (RCSD), serves mainly students in Redwood City. However, it also serves students in the unincorporated areas around Redwood City – areas that back in the 50’s represented a greenbelt of sorts but have now essentially merged physically with the surrounding town. The high school district, aka the Sequoia Union High School (SUHSD) district serves something along the lines of eight communities: Redwood City, Atherton, Belmont, San Carlos, Woodside, Portola Valley, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and the unincorporated areas. So right off the bat, when one thinks about merging the RCSD with the SUHSD one is actually talking about merging seven elementary school districts as well (poor Atherton doesn’t even have its own district – it shares with Redwood City and Menlo Park).

This has the added element of taking seven districts with student populations ranging from about 9,000 (RCSD) to about 525 students (Woodside Elementary School District) and adding them to the 10,000 students of the high school district. The total size of the new district would be closer in size to 30,000 students, which is actually quite large for a school district (as a comparison, San Francisco Unified has about 53,000 students and is the seventh largest school district in California and San Jose Unified at 33,000 students is the 25th largest district in the state).

And, while our fantasy district would not be as large as the Los Angeles Unified in the number one spot with its nearly 700,000 students, it would have similar issues in that it would serve students from extremely diverse socio-economic backgrounds and there would be many winners and losers in the merger game.

But even beyond size is the fact that a town like Woodside might object to losing local control over its lone elementary school, and the underlying funding infrastructure would be impossible to work out. The reason for that is due to the fact that several of the elementary school districts that would have to merge are what is called “revenue limit” and several others, including the Woodside Elementary District and the SUHSD district, are “basic aid.”

A district’s revenue limit is based on its type (elementary, high, or unified), size (small or large), historical spending patterns, and a multitude of other variables, which together make for a complicated and lengthy formula. The state determines how much a district should ultimately get per student, and then “fills in” to reach the identified total dollars. (source: Edsource - click on blue text for hyperlink). And that’s the number that seemingly goes up and down based on the state’s budget. In fact, each district essentially has its own total per student dollar amount. This amount was thought to be fairly similar between districts, but a 2010 study discovered that in fact this amount can vary up to $3,800 per student between districts (source: Public Policy Institute of California - click on blue text for hyperlink).

However, basic aid districts have more money than the calculated revenue limit, and thus keep their property tax money to pay for local schools. Their schools are more insulated from the state’s budgetary woes. These basic aid districts - which are mostly wealthy property tax areas such as Woodside - get to keep their property tax dollars. So really the fewer kids in their schools the more money per student they can spend. Adding students to their rolls in effect is a burden to their programs as it disburses the money among more students.

We just happen to live in an area that has an over representation of basic aid districts, including the SUHSD. There are about 100 of such districts out of nearly 1,000 total school districts in the state. We have something like five of them surrounding Redwood City. But in all fairness to those districts, in as much as banding together would also make sense for their students, shelling out funds to support kids in the less amply funded districts may be asking too much, even though many of these students all come together at the high school level.

Funding inequities across California go back at least 50 years. However, several factors over the past 35 years have come together to magnify the errors in finance policy – these factors include several class action law suits and proposition 13. So really in the end we can only blame ourselves and those who came before us.


Going back to the beginning of this post – in a perfect world it would be great if our students were served by one district kindergarten through 12th grade. In that world then maybe all of this standardized testing and need to show growth in subgroups based on ethnic identity and household income might actually address learning gaps. The high schools would feel accountable to the elementary schools and vice-versa. And chasing numbers to substantiate how well we educate students might hold more meaning; however, we don’t have that world and we aren’t likely to in the near future.

Instead our community has to figure out how to best work with what we have and supplement where we can. We should demand our district leaders for both the elementary and high school districts work together more effectively to serve all students. We should demand that all students receive the education they deserve. And we should be able to find some common ground to bring our community together instead of drawing false lines in the sand as an excuse to avoid doing the right thing. I have said it before, I’ll say it again – our future is now.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Georgia Jack February 22, 2012 at 08:59 PM
I didn't realize that the Merc did an article this weekend on a similar theme. Interested? Thanks to one of my patch readers for letting me know: http://www.mercurynews.com/top-stories/ci_19761796
Claire Felong February 23, 2012 at 03:25 AM
Though not one generally to support standardized testing, I do believe the district should test at from 4rth grade up in multiplication, long division, fractions & decimals and not allow the student to advance in math if they fail. I am tutoring a 6th grader who doesn't know her times tables and has no clue about long division. How can she make any progress in the higher concepts if she spends all her time struggling with the math portion?
John Foley February 29, 2012 at 06:32 AM
The standards are----- there are no standards. Some of us have had students born and raised in Redwood City.....they do not speak English.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive March 05, 2012 at 03:51 AM
John, please elaborate.
Jack Hickey May 11, 2012 at 12:43 AM
Georgia says: "...– in a perfect world it would be great if our students were served by one district kindergarten through 12th grade. In my perfect world, taxes would not strip families of their ability to feed clothe and shelter themselves. That includes feeding their minds. _____The enormous "tax supported" expenditure for a monopolistic government schooling system hamstrung by an archaic EdCode, categorical programs and powerful unions makes that impossible. Competition is essentially non-existent. _____Meanwhile, the RCSD continues to "tinker at the fringes" seeking it's fourth parcel tax in the last two decades, squandering assets as they go. RCSD could benefit from some "tinkering" of the district boundaries. Here is my rationale: _____Current RCSD enrollment figures and available facilities show a surplus of 99 classrooms, equivalent to >3 campuses. Clifford school borders San Carlos, and really is in the "sphere-of-influence" of San Carlos ESD. Edgewood Road should establish the boundary. Selby Lane borders Atherton. It should be leased to a private school which could attract current Selby students as well as others from within and without the RCSD. A decrease in RCSD enrollment should be expected. ____District savings in principals and staff, plus lease income would obviate the need for a parcel tax in the foreseeable future.


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