Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 14, 2014

Plans for new elementary school put on hold

Board cites slowed enrollment growth, need for input from new superintendent

by Chris Kenrick

For the third time in five years, the Palo Alto Board of Education has hit the pause button on plans to open a new elementary school, citing enrollment growth that was slower than expected.

A majority of board members Tuesday signaled agreement with Superintendent Kevin Skelly's recommendation to drop a timeline that would have had them decide on the location of a 13th elementary school by this spring and to let Skelly's replacement take a fresh look at the issue next year.

Board members agreed to disband a committee that was pondering programming and location of a new school and to reopen talks to extend the leases of two independent schools now renting space from the district at 870 N. California Ave. (Stratford School) and 525 San Antonio Road (Athena Academy).

California's 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act — which phased in a requirement that children entering kindergarten must be 5 years old by Sept. 1 instead of Dec. 2 — has suppressed kindergarten enrollment for the past two years, contributing to the slowed enrollment growth.

"When the three small kindergarten classes move through the system, there will be small classes at each level, so we'll have a number of years where we'll have less kids flowing through all the grades," board Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell said.

"Given the costs of opening a new elementary school — both construction and operating — fiscally this is the right decision."

Board member Dana Tom agreed.

"It doesn't make sense to open a new school earlier than you need it, like you wouldn't buy a new computer until you need it," he said. "You'll make a better decision closer to when you need it and also not incur those costs."

Even board President Barb Mitchell, perhaps the strongest voice on the board in favor of committing funds to prepare for enrollment growth, supported delaying the process.

"I still am in favor of a 13th elementary school ... but the new superintendent really needs to be involved in this process," she said.

Board member Camille Townsend — a strong backer of innovative programming in the district, such as the Mandarin Immersion Program — said taking an additional year would provide more time for officials to ponder creative programming ideas for a new campus.

A year ago, the Board of Education made a similar decision to defer a decision on a new elementary school after members of a parent and staff Elementary Site Selection Advisory Committee had met for three months to consider the options.

In 2009, the board approved schematic architectural designs for a $15.5 million renovation of the Garland School campus at 870 N. California Ave. in preparation for a 2012 re-opening.

But just six weeks later, citing stalled enrollment growth and a $3 million "structural deficit" for 2009-10, the board voted to retreat from that plan.

District-wide enrollment has been on an upward trajectory for more than two decades after falling to a post-Baby Boom low of 7,500 in 1989.

Enrollment today stands at 12,500, but the pace of growth has slowed. Early registration for next fall's kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes is 39 students lower than last year's, officials recently reported.

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