The treasured but dilapidated former high school long has been leased by the city from the Palo Alto Unified School District for use as a community center, generating $7.3 million a year for schools — about 4 percent of the district's operating budget.
But the bill on Cubberley finally has come due with the looming exit of the anchor tenant, Foothill College.
The school-city lease was fashioned by community leaders in the 1980s as a way to preserve public property after declining enrollment in the previous decade led to a selloff of 10 school sites, representing 50 to 70 acres of land.
The Cubberley deal also was meant to provide a revenue stream to the schools, which were fearful about financial stability in the wake of the 1978 tax-cutting measure Proposition 13.
This year, using $40 million in bond money, Foothill had hoped to buy 8 acres at Cubberley, where it currently leases space, to build its own state-of-the-art "education center."
Though tempted by the offer, the City Council Monday voted to decline after the Board of Education declared it will need every last Cubberley acre for future enrollment. (The city holds title to 8 of Cubberley's 35 acres because of a 2000 land swap for the Terman Middle School campus.)
Rebuffed, Foothill is now looking to move its satellite campus, located at Cubberley since 1984, to possible sites in Sunnyvale.
Until now, Palo Alto school officials have been vague about exactly when, and for what purpose, they would take Cubberley back.
The city's lease of the campus expires in 2014.
Current school enrollment, at 12,024, has been on an upward trajectory since a post-Baby Boom low of 7,452 in 1989.
When enrollment was at its historic high of 15,575 in 1968, Palo Alto had three comprehensive high schools and more than 20 elementary schools.
The district is in the process of spending $378 million from a 2008 facilities bond measure to boost capacity at its two existing high schools, three middle schools and 12 elementary campuses. It is likely to open a 13th elementary school in the next three years.
Foothill had hoped to collaborate with the school district on a property-sharing deal at Cubberley, but found its overtures unreciprocated.
"Over the past year there have been a number of meetings with the (school) superintendent that also have been attended by the city manager," Foothill-De Anza Community College District Chancellor Linda Thor said this week.
"We have not found a lot of areas of agreement on opportunities for joint programming, or even necessarily a shared vision for the type of programming we would offer at an education center."
In arguing against the city selling its 8 acres, school board member Barb Mitchell alluded to the 1970s land sales that have haunted elected officials in the decades since.
"You will sense some emotion in my voice as a 50-plus-year resident of Palo Alto, because there's a lot of history and context to Cubberley," Mitchell said in a June 28 school board meeting.
Enumerating the sale of school sites such as Lytton, Crescent Park, De Anza, Ortega, Ventura and Ross Road, Mitchell said she did not fault previous boards for the land sales because of a "devastating budget situation."
But given the history, she said a line must be drawn at Cubberley.
"It's in no way disparaging the value and treasure that Foothill is, but if the city or school district lose control over this property, it's a forever decision. It will never be taken back. We'll never have the choice to change our minds."
The school board's June 28 declaration on Cubberley prompted the City Council this week to reverse its vote — cast June 27 — to draft a "letter of interest" to Foothill about a possible sale.
The council voted to tell Foothill it is not interested in a sale but wants to work with the college to explore other sites in the city. Council members instructed City Manager Jim Keene to return Oct. 3 with a plan for working with schools to shape Cubberley's future.
Foothill officials said they understood Palo Alto's reasons to be wary of a sale, but lamented a "lost opportunity" for Foothill and Palo Alto schools to collaborate on a future-oriented education center that could serve both populations.
Two of the five trustees of Foothill-De Anza — Betsy Bechtel and Bruce Swenson — are longtime Palo Alto residents.
Bechtel, a former mayor of Palo Alto, said she was "deeply disappointed at the lack of collaboration" despite years of efforts.
Bechtel said she was particularly galled to hear public testimony at a City Council meeting recently to the effect that, "'It will hurt our brand in Palo Alto if we allow a community college to be (at Cubberley) as opposed to Stanford.'
"That really bothered me because we are a real resource to the community, and I think people don't know it and don't appreciate it," said Bechtel, a Stanford University graduate, in an emotional statement during a Foothill-De Anza trustees' meeting Monday.
"I've heard some school board people say, 'Our children don't go to community college, they only go to four-year colleges.' I hope people will convey ... that they may think Palo Alto students only take AP classes, but there are a whole lot that don't, and there are a whole lot that our schools could serve better," Bechtel said.