Longtime Barron Park neighbors said the 2-acre lot -- situated alongside a paved bicycle path behind the high school's athletic fields -- was once a haven for nesting birds and wildflowers.
But a recent decision to spray the hillside with herbicide has killed all of the vegetation on the site, leaving little more than a giant brown mound, according to Roy Stark, a 50-year resident who lives near Gunn.
Stark recalled meadowlarks and other birds used to nest in the field. Seeds provided the birds with food, as did insects and caterpillars that fed on plants and laid their eggs there, he said.
Stark said he had no problem with the school mowing the 2-foot-tall weeds to prevent fires, which had been done at the urging of neighbors. The mowing took place late enough in the year for the creatures to benefit from the hillside's plants, he said.
But the decision to spray the land with chemicals sends the wrong message to the very youth the school is educating, he added.
"It's the worst possible thing . . . when you are trying to teach people to take care of their environment," he said.
School officials countered that they are dealing with the fire hazard in the most expedient way -- and saving the school district money.
Gunn Assistant Principal Tom Jacoubowsky said two fires have burned the grassland in recent years, potentially threatening nearby homes. A six-foot bike path is the only buffer between the weeds and fence-line trees that abut the homes. The area has experienced at least one fire, in 2003, since Jacoubowsky has been at the school.
He said he has not seen any birds nesting in the area, but he added he doesn't know of any environmental assessment having been done of the site's flora and fauna.
Palo Alto Unified School District Operations Supervisor Chuck McDonnell said he switched from mowing the hill to spraying Roundup, a broad-spectrum herbicide absorbed by plant leaves, just this year. Spraying saves money -- the Roundup costs under $100 -- compared with $21 per hour for five crew members, not including gas, equipment and tractor costs, he said. It also took five days to complete the work. He has also switched to spraying other areas, such as fence lines along athletic field, he added.
So far, McDonnell has received mostly positive comments from residents, he said. But several dog owners who walked their pets past the mound on Monday morning said they were unaware the hill had been sprayed. They said they appreciated the cost savings, but also expressed concern that herbicide was used in an area where children ride bicycles and dogs play.
McDonnell said he takes precautions in accordance with state law, using a relatively safe chemical and posting signs 72 hours before and after spraying.
"It's less polluting to the atmosphere to use Roundup than working with a diesel engine and 2-cycle (weed eaters) for five days," he added.
Stark still believes the district's tactic is teaching a bad lesson.
"When you allow people to poison the ground, you are showing (children) that money is more important than protecting the environment," he said.