In a meeting to map the future of Palo Alto's elementary schools, school board members unanimously agreed to take back the former Garland Elementary School site (for a likely 13th elementary school) from its current lessee.
Yet in the three years before the site becomes available crowding will likely displace children from neighborhood schools, Superintendent Kevin Skelly warned at Tuesday night's board meeting.
The meeting was for discussion only, meaning the board will have to vote officially at a later meeting.
The district currently leases the Garland site to the private Stratford School for about $700,000 a year, or a half percentage point of its operating budget.
Although the board declined to give the required three-year notice to Stratford last winter, all agreed to Skelly's proposal Tuesday that it was high time due to burgeoning elementary enrollment.
This year's 4,986 students surpassed even high projections, which makes a 13th elementary school necessary, board Vice President Dana Tom said.
"Seeing that enrollment has gone way beyond expectations, the need has only intensified," he said.
There is no more room to add modular, separate classrooms to permanent structures, Board member Barb Mitchell said.
"I will support this. We have about 150 portables on our sites right now and we simply don't have the ability [to add more we had five or 10 years ago," she said.
But the site may not necessarily become a new elementary school. It could be used as "swing space" to house a school while an existing site is remodeled, Skelly suggested.
And middle school enrollment is also growing, meaning the site could help overflow from other grade levels, Board President Camille Townsend said after the meeting.
Regardless of exactly how it is used in the future, the three-year timeline of reclaiming Garland will not help deal with enrollment expected to skyrocket in the short term, Skelly said.
The enrollment forecast -- which this year's numbers already exceeded -- predicts that elementary schools will experience an influx of 205 students next year, he said.
The district is scrambling to plan ways to accommodate this abrupt jump, including adding students to classes to round out the 20-student cap, he said.
"Every kindergarten class in this district could hold an additional 1.6 students," he said, referring to the latest enrollment count taken this month.
"We believe we could do a better job of loading students in those classes and capturing more spaces," he said.
The district could also reduce the number of classes to make each one bigger at a couple of schools and turn science labs into classrooms, freeing up space for about 100 students, he said.
But accommodating more kids by shuffling them into groups of 20 means not all students will attend school near their home, he said.
"As we load classes closer and closer to 20 you're going to have more and more students who leave their neighborhood schools," he said.
Students from northern Palo Alto will primarily be displaced to roomier schools in south Palo Alto, he said.
Despite overflows, trying to maximize capacity is a better solution than building more portables, he said.
Referring to the coming effort next spring to push a bond measure for improved facilities, buying portables would weaken the district's cause in the eyes of voters, he said.
It is better to wait for bond funding to build permanent classrooms than to purchase portables now, he said.
And portables detract from a school overall, he said.
"Portables are larger than classrooms you would construct permanently and therefore take away playground room for students," he said.
Yet board members had reservations about the strategy of packing schools and shunning portables to deal with growing enrollment.
"It seems to me this is going to be a values clash between how efficient we can be … and how we can keep kids in the neighborhood and minimize overflow," Mitchell said.
The district should track resulting overflow next year, she suggested.
Board member Gail Price cautioned against focusing too much on "bricks and mortar solutions." She said programmatic changes such as block scheduling may meet future enrollment challenges.
Skelly's proposal to turn science labs at Fairmeadow and Escondido schools into classrooms also rankled parents, who spoke out against it at the meeting.
"I was shocked and disappointed to read earlier today that it looks like that [science program will go away," Fairmeadow parent John Markevitch said. The school has already been approved to add new portables to meet enrollment, he said.
District staff will look for spaces besides the science labs and present findings at the Nov. 13 school board meeting, Skelly promised.
In other business, the board:
• Discussed the possible future bond measure to improve facilities. Under current thinking, the district would extend the current bond measure without increasing the tax rate, Chief Business Officer Bob Golton said.
The bond would be issued in a series to raise approximately $350 million, he said.
Proposed improvements include updating schools to become more energy efficient and buying new technology, according to a bond draft provided by Golton.
The discussion was the first of many in coming weeks. The community is invited to give input until Dec. 14, and the board will discuss the proposed bond measure again in January. The bond measure draft is available at http://pausd.org/community/board/downloads/brd_packet/item_013.pdf .
• Heard the results of a voter survey about support for a possible bond measure in June from Gene Bregman and Associates.
Support from Palo Altans is extremely high -- 72 percent agreed the district needs more money, Bregman said.
But results also indicate that voters are unsure of what exactly needs improvement at schools, he said.
The district should strive to educate voters to ensure positive results come June, he said.
• Heard a report about improved school-to-household communications, one of the district's focused goals for this year.
The district is adopting Connect-Ed, a communications system that will improve how administrative staff reaches parents, Technology Director Marie Scigliano said.
The system will function smoothly even in emergencies and can make up to 2 million phone calls per hour, she said.