Pinch points on the future of Cubberley Community Center came into sharper focus Thursday, July 19, as Palo Alto city and school policymakers gathered to ponder their options.
Five elected officials -- three from the City Council and two from the school board -- met to provide guidance to a 25-member "community advisory committee" charged with making recommendations on the Middlefield Road campus's future.
The council must provide notification by the end of 2013 on whether it wants to renew its longstanding $7 million-a-year lease of the site from the school district, which expires at the end of 2014.
The schools have grown dependent on the Cubberley lease income -- now 4 percent of the Palo Alto Unified School District's operating budget -- even as the arrangement has become less financially tenable for the city.
Except for basic maintenance, neither entity has invested in improvements to the aging, 35-acre facility, which the city has sub-leased at bargain rates to a range of community organizations and individuals.
A blue-ribbon infrastructure commission last year advised the council to terminate the Cubberley lease, saying the city cannot afford to continue renting the former high school campus that needs about $18 million in repairs.
"With our city struggling to meet the financial requirements of the general fund, let alone catching up an keeping up with the maintenance of the city's infrastructure demands, now is the appropriate time for the school district to re-establish its management and financial responsibilities of and for the Cubberley site," said the commission, which was co-chaired by former school board chairman Ray Bachetti and former mayor Le Levy.
But council members have said they'll defer that advice pending a search for a win-win solution through a joint decision-making process with the school district.
The agreed-to protocol involves three committees: the "policy committee" consisting of Council member Larry Klein, Nancy Shepherd and Yiaway Yeh and school board members Barb Mitchell and Camille Townsend; a much larger "community advisory committee" co-chaired by former mayor Mike Cobb and former school board president Mandy Lowell; and a "technical advisory committee" that includes City Manager Jim Keene and school Superintendent Kevin Skelly.
The groups are charged with formulating recommendations that can be brought back to the full City Council and school board for action.
While policymakers Thursday urged the citizens' committee to "think big" on long-term options for Cubberley, there was clear anxiety, particularly from the school board members, about the risk of disruption to revenue the schools depend on.
"Seven million dollars to the district is a lot of money -- that's the number out there," Townsend said.
"We're using it for operating revenue, and for me it's very important we don't forget that."
Mitchell repeatedly sought to elicit a "consensus interest" of the council analogous to what she described as the school board's consensus to use Cubberley for short-term revenue generation and long-term flexibility.
Klein, who chaired Thursday's session, said it was premature to describe any council consensus on Cubberley.
"It's too early. Some of the decisions you're talking about were supposed to be informed by the recommendations of the community advisory commission. We want that advice," Klein said.
"No decisions will be made until sometime in 2014. The two bodies are free to negotiate some different kind of lease. Extending the lease for five or 10 years is the easiest possibility, but there's nothing to prevent a seven-year lease or a three-year lease or a $1-a-year lease."
Klein said policymakers want "creativity" from the citizens' advisory committee, but also suggested committee members consider short- and medium-term needs.
"I'd say the committee should look at things with most emphasis placed on the short term and medium-term, with much less emphasis on the long term because the long term is so unknowable," he said.
"To me it's a 50-40-10 process."
But former mayor Bern Beecham, who heads the citizens' advisory committee's subcommittee on school needs, said long-term certainty would be required to warrant any capital investment in Cubberley.
"If we restrict ourselves to the short term of five or 10 years I think it will wind up a status-quo operation at that site," Beecham said. "There's no reason to change anything when you don't know where you're going."
"Even for replacing roofs on buildings, you don't replace, you just patch. If it's in increments of five years, nothing changes."
Beecham said he doubted the school district, which is banking on Cubberley to accommodate projected but uncertain enrollment growth, would be able to specify its long-term intentions for the site.
He also said "the committee is presuming a lease will be renewed."
School officials said they expect to build a new elementary school at 525 San Antonio Ave., a 2.6-acre property recently purchased by the school district that backs up to the current Greendell School site, which is contiguous with the Cubberley campus. Skelly said the citizens' advisory committee should not include that property in their Cubberley recommendations.
Community Advisory Committee Co-chair Cobb asked the elected officials for the maximum amount of time and berth for the committee, saying that would be needed to produce creative recommendations.
Klein expressed frustration that advisory committee recommendations, initially projected for the end of this year, now have been pushed to the middle of 2013.
"We're frittering away our schedule," Klein said, alluding to the possibility of a ballot measure related to Cubberley in November 2014.
Klein suggested a Feb. 28, 2013, deadline for the advisory committee, saying the mid-2013 idea is "not acceptable."
Keene and Yeh also made mention of a possible bond measure related to Cubberley, with Yeh suggesting that the council and school board jointly sponsor such a request of voters.
Townsend said Yeh's comments about Council-school board cooperation on Cubberley "sang to my heart," though later clarified that she was not explicitly endorsing a bond measure.
"I don't think we can ignore the lease ... but I like the thought about, how do we, as a group of electeds, deal with this funding issue in a bigger sense of the word?
"Many years ago, bright leaders came forward and found a solution in a really hard time, and that's the spirit Yiaway touched," Townsend said, alluding to the original city-school rental agreement crafted in the 1980s, when the city also adopted a utility users tax that was widely viewed as generating funds for the lease payments.