When Kelly Blythe and his wife Julliane moved into their townhome in 2001, they knew it was in the Ravenswood City School District, but since they weren't planning to have kids at the time it wasn't a major concern.
But a few years later when they decided to start a family the couple took a closer look at the public school system. They weren't overjoyed at what they found.
"The performance at the schools my children would have attended is well below acceptable levels," said Blythe.
He ultimately joined forces with neighbor Maria Kaval, another dissatisfied parent who had initiated a petition seeking to transfer the Pacific Parc townhomes from the Ravenswood District to the Menlo Park City School District. Kaval had hoped the process would be completed before her daughter's first day of school.
"Our children play with the other neighborhood children from the Willows," Kaval told the Menlo Park City Council in 2006, seeking support for the transfer. "As they grow older we want them to have the opportunity to attend public school with the friends they are forming now."
That was almost a half decade ago and they have waged the fight ever since. Today Kaval's two daughters attend private schools instead of schools in the Ravenswood district. Blythe's two sons, ages one and three, attend a day care center nearby.
Now a recent state education board decision is giving the families hope that the zoning anomaly they challenged could change. Even though Pacific Parc townhomes are surrounded by homes owned by families whose children attend Menlo Park city schools, the children who live in the 25 townhomes of Pacific Parc have had to register in the Ravenswood district.
The official school ratings
Each year, California releases Annual Performance Index scores designed to measure how well schools are doing. These scores are based upon standardized tests and state exit exams and are used to establish benchmarks against which improvement can be measured.
This year Ravenswood scored 688, up from 666 in 2009. Menlo Park's score was 933 this year, two points higher than last year's results. California's baseline goal for all schools is a score of 800, with 875 needed for a school to be deemed proficient.
Although Willows Elementary School is literally next door to Pacific Parc, it's part of the Ravenswood district and Pacific Parc parents prefer their children go to Menlo Park's Laurel Elementary School.
The Tinsley Volunteer Transfer Program
Both school districts are familiar with their performance disparities since they participate in the Tinsley Volunteer Transfer Program, a government-mandated program conceived in 1976 when a group of East Palo Alto parents petitioned the San Mateo County Office of Education to allow their children to attend classes in the neighboring school districts.
Children living in East Palo were supposed to attend Ravenswood schools, but many parents felt the district failed to offer their kids the same educational opportunities enjoyed by children in the seven school districts surrounding Ravenswood, including Menlo Park.
After a decade of haggling, a settlement was reached in 1986 creating a program designed to enable students of color living in homes within the Ravenswood District to apply for a transfer into one of the seven surrounding school districts, while non-minority students from the Las Lomitas, Belmont-Redwood Shores, Menlo Park and other districts could transfer to Ravenswood schools, although this is an uncommon practice. Children accepted by other districts are bused to school at that district's expense.
In 1983, the Menlo Park district absorbed almost 2,200 homes located in the Ravenswood district, all on land zoned residential. However, Pacific Park was not developed until 1996 and sits on a parcel of land originally occupied by an abandoned dairy -- an island of then-commercially zoned property surrounded by single family homes.
Located about five minutes from downtown Menlo Park, the Pacific Parc townhomes are described by Gwen Wang, a Keller Williams Realtor, as a place for "sophisticated living." Pacific Parc townhomes average 1,485 square feet with three bedrooms, two baths, a two-car garage and currently cost about $800,000.
Reorganizing School Districts
After the San Mateo County Committee on School District Reorganization denied their transfer petition in 2007, Blythe and Kaval took their case to the California State Board of Education and twice this year have traveled to Sacramento to plead their case.
"I have negative vacation days from taking so much time off from work," Kaval told Menlo Park school board directors during a recent plea to support the petition. But Menlo Park turned a deaf ear, refusing to approve the transfer by officially taking the position that their schools were too crowded to accept additional students. Ravenswood opposed the transfer saying it would increase ethnic segregation between the districts.
Tim Fox, a member of the county's school district reorganization committee who also serves as legal counsel for the Menlo Park district, said that even though parents had met all of the state's nine requirements for transfer, the committee was obligated to deny the petition because it was afraid of setting a precedent.
"If you want to know why the Ravenswood district has made little progress in becoming a racially-integrated school district in the past 30 years," Fox said, "the answer lies not in uncontrollable factors like housing prices or socioeconomic status, but in the 1983 state board decision to transfer the Willows neighborhood, which was 72 percent non-minority, out of a district that was 98 percent minority."
Ravenswood schools superintendent Maria de la Vega declined to be interviewed for this story.
Although the state education board was unable to resolve the issue when it was first presented more than four months ago and deferred a decision, on Sept. 15 the board voted 6-5 to accept Blythe and Kaval's appeal. Within the next 24 days San Mateo County School Superintendent Anne Campbell must call a special election to decide the matter.
"We were 51 to 49 percent thinking it [the appeal] would be successful," said Blythe. "This is a small group that doesn't affect the balance of everything and all it does is correct this historical anomaly."
Public documents provide a more in-depth understanding of the issue. View the ones attached to these words.