In 1996, the Cabrillo Unified School District governing board approved a new Facilities Master Plan (FMP), a 25-year plan that projects student enrollment, determines which new schools and other facilities will be required to serve that enrollment, and specifies how the district will pay for those facilities.

Enrollment projections are the basis of the plan, because they're the means by which we can predict how many classrooms we'll need in the future, how big our schools will become, and when we'll need to build new ones because of enrollment growth.

The FMP predicted that total district enrollment would approximately double over the 25 years from 1995 to 2020. Because of that growth, we projected a need for enhancing the high school, building a new, larger, middle school in place of Cunha, building a new elementary school at the Cunha site (freed up by the new middle school), and eventually building a second middle school and one more elementary school.

It's important to recognize that all these new schools were planned for one main reason: rapid enrollment growth, doubling in 25 years.

Projected Growth

» See Graph No. 1

The Facilities Master Plan projected that the district would grow at a rapid rate for the next 25 years. In fact, our enrollment grew for a year or so, and has declined every year since 1997.

Overall enrollment has declined even while high school enrollment has increased (due a lower dropout rate in grades 11-12).

The Plan arrives at it's growth rate in part by asserting that the district would grow by 3.49% a year. The fact that Half Moon Bay had a 3% growth cap didn't discourage the authors; they suggested that the growth cap might be "rescinded". Of course, we know now that the 3% cap was lowered by an overwhelming vote of the people to 1%.

Annual Review

Of course, the facilities committee didn't have a crystal ball, and they had no guarantee that the FMP's enrollment projections were correct. So the FMP (as adopted by the board) provides for its own revision and correction:

The success of the FMP will not only come from the community's ability to see and use the new facilities implemented through the FMP, but also from the District's credibility established in the community as a result of maintaining and accountable implementation program. This accountability can only come from an objective regular and on-going audit of the program. [FMP I-7]

1) The Governing Board should annually schedule and conduct an open public hearing for the purpose of reviewing each Program Activity and the status of the implementation of the FMP, the independent auditor's report, the Audit Review Blue Ribbon Committee Report, and public comments resulting from the annual FMP public hearing. [FMP I-14; emphasis mine]

2) Do the Program Activities remain viable and appropriate based upon demographic, financial, economic, physical, and/or political variables affecting the District?

3) Have conditions, including but not limited to, demographic, financial, economic, physical, and/or political characteristics, changed in the State, the City, the County, the District, the community, and/or individual neighborhoods, which would suggest that the adopted FMP, or any of its parts, should be reconsidered?

4) Have the attitudes, needs, and desires of the constituents of the District, the District's students, and/or the District's employees changed which would suggest that the adopted FMP, or any of its parts, should be reconsidered?

These procedures and evaluations provide a mechanism to ensure that the FMP recommended by the Facilities Advisory and adopted by the Governing Board maintains a level of integrity throughout its implementation. [FMP I-15; emphasis mine]

With the FMP's strong emphasis on accountability and public review, it may come as a surprise to learn that there has never been such a public hearing, nor to my knowledge has the Blue Ribbon Audit Committee ever been formed, let alone made a report.

So What?

If you've followed along this far, you may be wondering what the point of all this is. Why do we need to review the Facilities Master Plan, anyway? Why not just go ahead and build the new schools according to the old FMP?

So What? Big Bucks

One reason is that the FMP's building plan is expensive. Between the 1996 bond issue approved through Measure K, state matching funds, and additional money borrowed by the district through Certificates of Participation, we've raised some $65,000,000 toward a total FMP budget of $114,000,000, not allowing for inflation.

This money comes from the taxpayers, primarily the taxpayers within the district. Certainly we should build the schools that we need, but building schools we aren't going to need is flushing taxpayer money down the toilet.

So What? The Example of Santa Cruz

» See Graph No. 2

As you may have heard, Santa Cruz's K-5 enrollment has been dropping for several years, to the point that the district decided this year to close two of their six elementary schools. As you might expect, this is a painful process; nobody wants their neighborhood school closed. But especially in these times of tight budgets, it's hard to justify spending scarce resources on keeping unneeded schools open.

In 1996, the authors of the Facilities Master Plan weren't planning on falling enrollment. On the contrary, they projected rapid growth out to 2020. Here's a graph that compares Santa Cruz K-5 enrollment with CUSD's enrollment leading up to 1996, and the FMP's projection of K-5 enrollment up to this year.

» See Graph No. 3

Here we see the difference between Santa Cruz, with its falling enrollment and its need to close down schools, and Cabrillo, with rapidly rising enrollment, and its need to build more K-5 schools. (Enrollment numbers have been normalized to 1996=1,000 to make comparisons easier.)

But what if our enrollment doesn't follow the Master Plan? Then how do we compare with Santa Cruz?

The answer isn't pretty. As you can see, the FMP was badly mistaken in its projections. In fact, our enrollment trend after 1996 is almost identical to that of Santa Cruz.

So look at Graph 3 again. Santa Cruz, in blue, recognizes that its enrollment is falling so far that it needs to close two elementary schools. Cabrillo, in green, is currently on a path to build two new elementary schools.

What's more, the California Department of Finance projects that public school enrollment in San Mateo County overall will continue to drop, for the foreseeable future.

It's Time to Ask Directions

Our district is behaving like someone who's been driving, and getting more and more lost, for seven years, and still refuses to stop and ask for directions. Board member Dwight Wilson tells us that we need to first build new schools, and only then review the Facilities Master Plan.

That's a formula for disaster. We need to reconstitute the facilities committee now, and perform a thorough review and revision of the Master Plan, complete with public hearings and input, before we build another square foot of space.

Protestations of urgency by the board are disingenuous at best. They've been content to sit on Measure K bond funds since 1996; we need to take the time now to make sure that those funds are spent responsibly.

What Went Wrong?

Granting that enrollment projections are an uncertain business in the best of cases, we might still ask: how did the Facilities Master Plan do such a bad job, and can we hope to do better?

Of course we can do better, if for no other reason than that we have seven more years of actual data, instead of projections, that weren't available in 1995-96. But it's also apparent, looking at the FMP, that the authors had a distinct bias toward high growth.

The facilities committee began by looking at historical enrollment growth and projecting it forward for five years. There's no single best method to choose for doing this, so the committee considered eight different statistical projection methods. The results are shown in the Graph No. 4.

» See Graph No. 4

Notice that most of the methods gave results in the 2-2.5% range, with the expectation of "last historical", which was a little low, and "cohort survival progression", which projected much higher growth than the others.

» See Graph No. 5

A reasonable person might be inclined to throw out the extreme projections, both at the high and low ends, and use some middle value in the 2-2.5% range. But that's not what the facilities committee did.

Instead (and inexplicably), they projected even higher enrollment growth than the highest growth rate predicted by even the most extravagant statistical model, as shown to the right.

That is, the committee decided that future growth would be higher than any rate that could be justified by historical means, and used that rate to drive the entire Facilities Master Plan.

It's instructive to look at the actual enrollment growth in the district over the same period. Not only does it not achieve the high rate projected in the FMP, it's far lower than even the lowest of the statistical methods.

» See Graph No. 6

Even that growth rate is misleading, because what actually happened was that the district experienced one more year or two of enrollment growth, and from 1997 on enrollment has dropped every single year.

In section IV-7, the FMP says, "...these projections assume the City's [HMB's] 3.0% growth management policy." A late draft (dated 12/95) had an additional sentence: "If the City rescinds this policy and the sewer and water capacity issues are addressed, the number of residential units that would be permitted under the City's Land Use Plan and existing zoning would be substantially higher as previously discussed." As we know now, in November 1999 Half Moon Bay voters overwhelmingly approved a 1% cap on growth.

The district's enrollment drop would have been difficult to predict back in 1995-96; that's why it's critically important to review and revise the Facilities Master Plan annually, and the Plan itself mandates. But, had the FMP's authors been less biased toward high growth, the plan would have been much closer to reality.

Press

Local press coverage of this subject has been pretty good. Here are some of the articles and letters that have appeared recently.

Revising school figures, Emily Wilson, Half Moon Bay Review, 26 March 2003.

Jonathan Lundell is a man with a mission. And that mission may become an important component in the ongoing discussion about the location of the middle school.

At issue is a document called the Facilities Master Plan, which is supposed to be updated every year by the Cabrillo Unified School District (CUSD) Board of Trustees, but has not been revised since it was created in 1996. ...

Revising plan is prudent, Jonathan Lundell (letter), Half Moon Bay Review, 2 April 2003.

I'd like to respond to the points made last week by Ken Jones in Emily Wilson's useful article on the overdue revision of our school district's facilities master plan. ...

Where else can new middle school go?, Jim Welte, Half Moon Bay Review, 9 April 2003.

... Other school activists suggest that if the district's enrollment numbers increase in the next several years, the board might want to consider building a smaller middle school to serve the northern section of the Coastside, a move that could bring much-needed relief to the Coastside's traffic congestion problems by limiting the amount of north-south traffic. ...