School’s unsustainable path clashes with neighbors 

At a time when expectant mothers start shopping for preschools and parents start eyeing colleges while their kids are in grade school, it’s no wonder we find ourselves in education’s period of wretched excess.

So with admission letters about to go out in two weeks and tuitions climbing to $25,000 per year for K-8 students at some private schools, it may be time to raise the issue: When is too much too much?

That’s certainly the question being asked by neighbors of the exclusive and tradition-rich all-girls school that borders San Francisco’s Seacliff area. The Katherine Delmar Burke School has found itself at odds with its affluent neighbors for alleged violations of its conditional use permit designed to spell out the type and amount of activity that can take place on its campus.

Neighbors say the school has become way too busy — with nighttime events and summer camps — and that it has come upon the grim reality faced by so many private schools searching to be a little more “competitive” than their counterparts. Some say that the school’s recent expansion created a desperate struggle for it to meet its soaring financial burden.

“We don’t believe that they’re intentionally being bad neighbors, its just that they’ve created a model where they have to worry about their financial future,” said Lisa Byrne, a member of the Lincoln Park Homeowners Association and the mother of a former student.

A few years ago, Burke trustees decided to add a new science and arts building to the campus and expand the library. Neighbors signed off on the deal. But now the $15 million price tag on the loan has come due, and because the school agreed to cap its enrollment at 400 students, it can’t cover the costs through tuition hikes — even though those costs have gone up 60 percent since 2004, from $15,000 per child to nearly $25,000.

As a result, the school has been branching out with numerous activities to raise revenue, including renting out its campus for parties and adding a large summer school camp for as many as 250 kids. That latter venture is what really set neighbors off, since they believed that despite agreeing to the new building, there were controls in place to limit year-round activities.

As a result, the two sides are now waging a battle at the Planning Department trying to get officials to determine what’s allowed under the use permit. And it’s gotten bad enough that some neighbors are threatening to push to the Assessor-Recorder’s Office to see if the nonprofit school should be taxed for leasing its campus to outside commercial interests.

But Kim Wargo, head of the school, said the idea that summer programs would be a new burden for the neighborhood is “erroneous” because Burke has had summer activities for years.

“We feel like we’re just going back to something that has always been done,” she said. “Private schools have a public purpose, and we need to find ways to serve a larger constituency.”

At some point, though, something has to give, and it appears to be tolerance among even longtime supporters in the quiet residential neighborhood. Until recently, the biggest concern about Burke was the amount of traffic and congestion it generated, and the school’s ever-growing thirst for parking.

Like so many private schools, both religious and secular, Burke may be facing what a longtime headmaster once referred to as an “edifice complex,” whereby institutions expand as a way to appear more attractive to applicants without advancing any great educational need.

The school had zero interest expenses six years ago. Last year, it paid $735,000 just to cover the interest on its loan. It has become more reliant on major fundraisers to close the gap. Burke’s main donor event last year raised more than $900,000, but even wealthy parents can’t expect to be annual rainmakers in a recession. And the expenses are growing disproportionately.

“The school needs to rethink its future,” Byrne said. “It has shown an insatiable appetite for growth and spending, and it’s probably already reached its limits.”

Being bigger and better, and somehow still solvent — that’s the new art in education.


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Ken Garcia

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