El Crystal Elementary received approval to become a magnet school last night, however, the heated conversation leading up to the green light showcased a divided district and lingering fiscal problems within San Bruno.
The proposal to convert the school into one that focuses on a science, technical engineering and mathematics (known as STEM) began in the 2013-14 school year and generated universal praise from those in the audience last night. But, as the San Bruno Park School District faces a $3 million deficit, it also raised questions for some trustees about possibly spending more than $100,000 in startup costs. Ultimately a 3-1 vote, with Trustee Kevin Martinez dissenting and Trustee Henry Sanchez absent, moved the proposal forward.
"I can’t believe we’re begging you to improve these schools,” El Crystal Principal Skip Johnson said when it appeared the board would be deadlocked with a split vote.
Despite voting for the magnet proposal, board President Skip Henderson still had questions about the possible negative impact it may cause throughout the district.
"We’re in deep doo-doo when it comes to finances,” said Henderson.
Adding another program into the mix when there are other problems isn’t prudent. He also had concerns that the new program would draw students from other San Bruno schools causing a lower enrollment. Such a change could make other schools more vulnerable to closure – a conversation that will most likely be rekindled given the district’s budget challenges.
Johnson, along with members in the audience, pledged to raise the funds needed to get the program started. If the money isn’t raised, Johnson told Henderson they would have to pull the plug. Advocates pointed to grant and donor possibilities if the program is given the go-ahead. Securing that money, supporters argued, would give the district more money to spend on other district schools.
Martinez’s concerns were not about the program but more about the possible benefit and access to all students. He also had questions about governance that he wanted worked out before approval.
Trustees Jim Prescott and Jennifer Blanco both favored the proposal, crediting staff and the community for coming together to bring forward a creative solution that could draw positive change to the district.
Unlike most magnet schools, the El Crystal proposal includes keeping the current boundaries and allowing students from throughout the district to also enroll as space permits. The school would convert its media center to be formally named the Danford Center for Innovation. The name will honor the Danford Foundation which has donated more than $200,000 to both El Crystal and Parkside to support the implementation of technology. The center would serve as space for continued teacher professional development and as a student technology activity center, according to the proposal included in the staff report. The plan also calls for the creation of a subcommittee including school, district and community representatives to create an action plan that includes designing curriculum, considering enrollment possibilities, making presentations to the larger school community, working with a volunteer architect to redesign the media center and seeking outside funding.
Budget and school closure remain serious issues for the district.
The San Bruno Park Elementary School Board of Trustees hoped to curb the deficit with Measure G, a five-year, $199 annual parcel tax that failed on the Nov. 6 ballot. An updated current budget now shows an expected $3.26 million deficit, according to a report by the Fiscal Sustainability Task Force. The presentation, which was supposed to be heard last night, calls for a $980,000 transfer from a special savings account and for more than $500,000 in either cuts or increased revenue.
The conversation about the budget, along with a number of other agendized items, weren’t heard Wednesday. Instead, the meeting was ended at 10 p.m. and the conversation was moved to a special meeting to be held Thursday, Nov. 29.
Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.