Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 28, 2014

School board to city: 'Keep funding schools'

Members say voters intended school funding through Cubberley lease

by Chris Kenrick

The Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday argued for the City of Palo Alto to continue to make payments to the school district for rental of Cubberley Community Center, citing voters' intention to support schools through the payments in a 1987 election.

The discussion came as the board defined its positions in negotiating with the city over renewal of its long-term lease of the south Palo Alto center, which expires at the end of this year.

Since 1989, the lease has produced more than $100 million in city payments to the school district and currently generates $7.1 million each year, including $1.8 million from a 1989 city-school "covenant not to develop" for five school sites, which were vacant at that time.

The city's source of revenue for the Cubberley lease payments has been the city's utility-user tax, which was approved by voters in 1987 explicitly to fund schools.

The City Council unanimously decided in February that elimination of the $1.8 million "covenant not to develop" should be one of its guidelines in renegotiating the lease with the school district. Council members noted that all five of the once-vacant school sites (Ohlone, Jordan, JLS, Garland and Greendell) are now in use or leased by the district and thus unlikely to be sold and developed.

School board members protested that argument Tuesday, insisting the schools still need the covenant money and that continued payments to support schools were intended by voters in 1987.

"The district is not looking for substantial modifications to the (Cubberley lease) agreement," Board President Barb Mitchell said.

"That doesn't mean we're dug in. It just means we believe the existing agreement still reflects the interests that formed the partnership in 1987 and 1989 and was renewed in 2003."

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he wanted to renegotiate the lease based on "common interest" rather than negotiating positions, but suggested the district could show greater flexibility on possible interim development at the site.

The district has said that if enrollment continues to grow, it may need the Cubberley land for a new high school around 2025.

"But if there are things (the city) wants to do there, we want to share in that discussion," Skelly said. "We're not two ships passing in the night. We all represent this community and we don't want to be that impediment."

Former school board president Carolyn Tucher, who served two terms on the board in the 1980s, urged the board to be more proactive in defining its vision for Cubberley.

"Three years ago, talks began between representatives of the City Council and school board," Tucher said. "Now, with only nine months remaining (on the Cubberley lease), the school board has yet to develop a public vision or take a public position on the major issues.

"You tell us you want to keep the money flowing in the district from the utility-user tax but you don't tell us on what premise you would base the ongoing funding," Tucher said, urging board members to be more transparent in its Cubberley discussions.

Two parents argued for continuation of the lease under current terms.

"No great economy grows by disinvesting in education," said Nancy Krop, a Barron Park parent and director of legislation for the Sixth District PTA.

"While California begins to turn the corner and increase funding for schools, here we are in Palo Alto talking about decreasing," she said.

Krop said comparable high-performing school districts in the state spend far more per pupil — $22,000 or more — compared to Palo Alto's $13,000.

Even with a recent spike in property tax revenue, per-pupil funding in Palo Alto is not optimal, said board member Dana Tom, who noted many families move here specifically because of the quality of the schools.

"If you look at the aspirations our community has for our students ... they far outstrip anything we can do with the funding we have.

"There's no question that the utility-user-tax funding is essential for our district," Tom said.

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