A citizen commission in December recommended the City of Palo Alto terminate its lease of district-owned Cubberley, located at 4000 Middlefield Road, a move that would have a significant impact on Palo Alto school finances, said Camille Townsend, president of the Board of Education.
"It would be huge," Townsend said of the proposals put forth by the city's Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission. She spoke in a wide-ranging Dec. 31 interview on topics likely to come before the school board in 2012.
Termination of the city's $6.1 million in annual payments to the school district is one of the major recommendations in the city Blue Ribbon Commission's 170-page report on how to deal with the city's mounting infrastructure problems.
The city has scheduled a Jan. 17 public hearing on the recommendations.
The current Cubberley lease agreement between the school district and the city expires in 2014.
The school board and City Council have pledged to hold talks on the future of the 35-acre campus, but Townsend said, "I think the city is under a tighter timeline than the school district, but obviously we all need to sit down and work through those timelines together.
"I think the City Council will ask what impact this will have on the schools. The Council as much as the school board wants to maintain the integrity of the schools."
Last summer, the Board of Education successfully dissuaded the council from selling the 8 city-owned acres of Cubberley, insisting that — with growing enrollment — the district eventually would need to reclaim the full property for schools.
But contending with budget cuts and uncertain enrollment projections, school leaders have kept mum on exactly how — and when — the land will be needed.
At its peak in 1968, Palo Alto had an enrollment of 15,000 students, with three high schools, three middle schools and more than 20 elementary campuses.
Student headcount fell to a low of 7,500 in 1989 and then began creeping steadily back upward. For the current school year it stands at 12,286, with two high schools, three middle schools and 12 elementary schools.
The school board is scheduled to hear the latest demographic projections for enrollment Tuesday (Jan. 10).
But, she said, the district needs to stay flexible "given operating budget fluctuations and uncertainty about how much money we actually have to educate kids.
"There's always the argument that if you open a whole new school you have all the administrative costs. And if our operating budget is going down, well, sometimes numbers talk. So if we were to open another school, we have to look at what it costs and where the money's going to come from.
"On the other hand, I understand people's concern that Cubberley is not looking as good as it should and everyone wants to tackle that."
The school district has been in cautious, budget-cutting mode since 2009, while maintaining what it calls an "unrestricted, undesignated fund balance" to cover so-called "ongoing structural deficits."
The district made $3.8 million in cuts to the roughly $160 million operating budget in 2010-11 and another $2.7 million reflected in the current year's budget.
By February, school administrators said they'll recommend between $1.2 million and $2.8 million in cuts to the current year's budget.
Much of the earlier reductions were achieved through incremental increases in elementary class sizes, which have bumped up from 20 to 22 in grades K-3, and from 23 to 24 in grades 4-5.
"In the last two rounds we could shield out instructional programs from deep cuts, but this may not be possible for the upcoming cuts," the school district's Co-Chief Business Official Cathy Mak has told the board.
Townsend is worried now about class sizes in the high schools which, in some Advanced Placement classes, are as high as 39, she said.
As a so-called "basic aid" district funded primarily through property tax, Palo Alto does not collect revenue based on headcount, so enrollment growth means less money per student.
"As a result of state funding cuts, enrollment growth and relatively flat property-tax growth, the district now receives $939 less per student compared to three years ago," Mak said.
Cooperation between the city and school district on Cubberley dates back to the 1980s when — following the 1979 closure of the high school due to declining enrollment — community leaders crafted a plan to preserve the Cubberley acreage while providing a revenue stream to the schools.
The city pays the school district $4.48 million a year to lease Cubberley, which it in turn leases out as a community center. Additionally, the city pays the schools $1.73 million a year under a "covenant" in which the district promises not to sell any district-owned land for housing development, as well as $600,000 to ensure the schools offer after-school day care on elementary campuses.
But the infrastructure commission said the city no longer can afford the Cubberley deal.
"With our city struggling to meet the financial requirements of the General Fund, let alone catching up and 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," commissioners said.