The Palo Alto school district is retreating from a plan to re-open Garland Elementary School, amid budget uncertainties and slowing enrollment growth.
Four out of five school board members indicated Tuesday they will back a plan to rescind a termination notice to the private Stratford School, the current tenant at Garland, which is located on North California Avenue between Newell Road and Louis Road.
The four -- all but Board President Barb Mitchell -- also indicated they would recommit to an amended lease with Stratford that runs through June 2015 and requires three years' notice if the district wants to terminate.
A final vote is scheduled for Aug. 25.
Barely six weeks ago, board members approved schematic architectural designs for a $15.5 million renovation of Garland in preparation for 2012 re-opening the campus at 870 N. California Ave.
But the thinking has changed.
State budget cuts leave the district facing a $3 million "structural deficit" in the 2009-2010 school year. And enrollment, until recently growing at a healthy clip, has stalled.
School board members acknowledged they are betting that the recession will put a long-term damper on earlier enrollment projections. They also admitted they could be betting wrong.
But most thought the upside -- saving the $750,000-a-year Stratford lease revenue plus the $650,000-a-year cost of operating a new elementary school -- would be worth it.
Classroom space at the once-overflowing Addison and Duveneck elementary campuses will be freed up by a recent budget-conscious decision to allow as many as 22 students per class in kindergarten through third grade, up from 20, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.
And enrollment growth appears to be slowing.
"In the north (of the city) this year we have considerably fewer kindergartners," Skelly said. "Is it a blip? I don't know. Could we be wrong? Yes."
Skelly said he will revisit an earlier study aimed at finding possibilities for new space in the "north cluster" schools –- Addison, Duveneck and Walter Hays –- in the event the enrollment bet is wrong. So far, the only identified extra space is across town on the Fairmeadow and Juana Briones campuses.
Harking back to the district's painful period of closing elementary schools when enrollment dwindled in the 1970s and early '80s, board member Melissa Baten Caswell said, "It's hard to be crowded but it's worse to close schools. I'd rather be conservative and open schools slower."
But Mitchell appeared more worried about the crowding.
Saying she felt more "bullish" than her colleagues on prospects for an economic –- and enrollment -– recovery, Mitchell said, "I don't have a sense of confidence we have a contingency in place to address growth in the north cluster that prevents overflow."
Having their children "overflowed" to far-flung elementary schools is too disruptive for families and neighborhoods, Mitchell said.