Children and parents at Fairmeadow School are wondering why a beloved tree, which had been fenced for protection during a school construction project, was cut down over spring break.
School officials, who ordered the tree removed despite construction plans directing that it be saved, say they also are "very sad the tree came down" but insist there was no other choice once an arborist reported it was unsafe.
The half-century-old double-trunk redwood tree sat at the edge of Fairmeadow's grassy play yard, next to the elementary school's border with Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School.
Its shade and crooked, gnarly base made it a popular spot for "fairy play," said parent Ruth Gordon, whose two children went through the school.
"They created their own little world in there," she said.
Gordon, a landscape architect, sat on Fairmeadow's parent-staff committee that spent more than a year refining modernization and construction plans for the school.
Those plans include a new, eight-classroom, two-story building now being laid out in the vicinity of the tree. The new building, designed by San Francisco architect Lisa Gelfand, is slated to be occupied by fourth- and fifth-graders in spring 2013.
Committee members discussed the tree and -- both sides agree -- plans called for it to be preserved, and protected during construction.
"The two-story building was going to have that tree as a backdrop, and the second story would've looked into the tree," Gordon said.
"I talked to the architect about it and said it's a really nice nestling of the new building. Another benefit of the tree was it was going to screen the looming, two-story building from JLS," she said.
Gordon said kids and parents were astounded to return from spring break and find the tree gone and its stump already ground.
"I still can't believe it," she said.
"They need to fix some procedure about communication -- I know they're trying. I don't point fingers at any individual mal-intent about this, but something went really wrong and needs to be addressed and not repeated."
Fairmeadow students and teachers are writing and drawing their memories of the tree on a poster hung by Gordon's daughter Elisa Alfonso, now an eighth-grader at JLS. In it, a hand-drawn picture of Dr. Seuss's tree-defending character Lorax asks students to "speak for our tree."
"We're all very, very said about it," said Bob Golton, a senior school district official who oversees the facilities and bond construction program.
"But we had to do it because our arborist reports said the tree wasn't safe as far as the children and the campus and the new building were concerned.
"It turned out that the new building took away more of the area around the tree than had been thought."
In her report on Fairmeadow trees, consulting arborist Deborah Ellis said "I cannot predict or guarantee what will happen to this tree if all of the planned improvements are constructed around it.
"There seem to be more construction damage thrown at this tree every week!" she wrote.
Ellis's presented three options, the first being removal of the tree. The other two options involved moving trenching for sewer lines, or digging the sewer excavation trench "very carefully by hand."
Golton said the district chose the first option.
"In an earlier report she'd recommended trimming about half of that tree and, in everybody's opinion, all that meant was the tree was going to die at some time in the future," he said.
Spring break was chosen as the best time to remove the tree because the campus would be vacant, he said, adding that, in hindsight, "We wish people had been notified better."
Three redwoods will be planted at Fairmeadow to "mitigate" for the one removed last week, he said.
Gordon said her mother, Mary Gordon, also a landscape architect, received a phone call from the school district proposing a meeting about the tree removal.
The mother and daughter have repeatedly appeared before the Board of Education to ask for greater attention to landscaping on all campuses in the school district's massive building program.
"I think the (Fairmeadow) community needs to be involved in any meeting," Ruth Gordon said.
Golton said the Fairmeadow redwood was a casualty of the school district's effort to increase capacity on its 17 campuses through the $378 million bond construction program.
"It doesn't make us happy. Now the campus is going to hold more children -- that's part of the district effort to increase capacity. But it's at the expense of things like this.
"Every time a tree gets taken down I get really sad. This is Palo Alto. This is very important," he said.