Prior to Measure A, the most recent bond passed by voters for district site improvements was the $143 million bond Measure B passed in 1995, known as Building for Excellence , or B4E. Although our schools eventually benefited significantly from B4E, this bond was plagued by serious management problems in the beginning, wasting both time and money.
As we approach Measure A's first anniversary, we as Palo Alto taxpayers and parents should take time to evaluate both the progress and quality of oversight of this new bond-funded capital-improvement program.
The progress of this new program has been rapid, accelerated in the rush of enthusiasm for long-overdue improvements. For example, on March 31, after a five-month process, the school board approved master plans for both Paly and Gunn, thereby allowing the building-design process to move forward.
But what about the quality of these plans? How many parents really know what they propose as the future of our high schools?
My two children are young, the oldest just entering school, but decisions made now will determine the high school they will attend.
To ensure the best possible campus for students now and decades into the future, a master plan should strive to meet the needs of the school's academic and extracurricular programs while still accommodating numerous campus-wide and long-range concerns.
A superior design can only be achieved through an outstanding decision-making process that relies on careful analysis of a wide variety of diverse and independent ideas.
Watching this process evolve, I have serious concerns about flaws that could undermine the end product. Let's take a closer look at the decision-making process that led to Paly's new master plan, which will underlie $178 million in site improvements over 20 years.
The Paly facilities steering committee, which proposed the Paly master plan and was chaired by the principal, was composed primarily of 10 Paly teachers and department heads. It contained one parent, hand-picked by the principal, and one student, a sophomore.
An architect hired by the district took direction from the committee. Committee members were unquestionably dedicated, but because they nearly all report to the principal and work together, there were significant incentives for them to go along and get along.
The committee notably did not include any architects, landscape architects, construction professionals or urban planners from the community. There were no experts in finance, sustainability issues, historic preservation or transportation, including high-speed rail.
There were no retired teachers or administrators, staff from other schools or parents from the parent-teacher-student associations.
Not having independent, diverse members on the committee may have unduly biased decisions toward the principal's personal preferences, departmental over campus-wide needs, and short-term over long-term concerns. I say "may" because the early meetings were not open to the public, hence only participants know.
Compounding the inherent limitations of the committee is a weak commitment to transparency and a weak oversight process.
Allowing the public to participate in government meetings is an important oversight mechanism in our democracy. Yet citizens were not invited to committee meetings until the fourth meeting of nine, on Dec 17. At the end of the meetings to which the public was invited, community members were allowed to speak for three minutes each. But there was no designated community liaison to follow-up with the speakers to answer questions and ensure their concerns were being addressed.
Two evening "community" meetings were overview reports from the architect.
In addition, the Paly facilities website, which lists the minutes of meetings, is inadequate. It does not include a description of how individual departments will be affected by the improvements. It does not describe how campus-wide and long-range issues (such as high-speed rail, sustainability and the possible re-opening of Cubberley as a high school) are being factored into the planning process.
It does not include cost/benefit analyses so we can understand how decisions were made. It also lacks a place for people to ask questions or provide suggestions.
Furthermore, the public was not welcomed to meet individually with steering committee members. For example, in early March I as a community member signed in at the main office for a pre-arranged meeting with a teacher to discuss the master plan. The principal confronted me and demanded to know the purpose of the meeting.
The principal subsequently said that it could be problematic for community members to meet with steering committee members and asked to be cc'd on all e-mail between the public and members of the committee.
Another problem was inadequate advertising of meetings in local newspapers and district e-news. E-mail invitations were limited to parents of eighth graders and above, even though the first beneficiaries of the projects will be primarily younger children.
In addition to the above deep flaws in the planning process, the Measure A citizen's oversight committee has no authority to oversee campus design. And because the school board cedes full operational control of campuses to principals, the board cannot suggest where individual departments should be located, even when those decisions bear directly on if, where and how to construct multi-million-dollar taxpayer-funded buildings.
District officials from the very top down should review the planning work to date and improve the process to ensure there is a collaborative openness with strong citizen oversight, not a closed system of controlled decision-making that will create lasting scars and increase the risk of major mistakes — such as happened with B4E.
Otherwise, Palo Altans may get school campuses that are less functional, less beautiful and more costly than they deserve to be.
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