School district to take back Garland
Amid 'surprising' growth, Palo Alto scrambles for elementary space
With booming enrollment in Palo Alto elementary schools, the Board of Education has voted to take back the old Garland Elementary School site to make way for more classrooms.
The school district is scrambling for more elementary space. New classrooms are under construction — or in the pipeline — at Ohlone, Fairmeadow and Duveneck schools.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly has said the district must be ready to handle as many as 568 additional K-5 students in the next five years — the size of a large elementary school.
The "surprisingly high" elementary enrollment bump last fall astonished even demographers, who said it exceeded projections based on previously reliable indicators such as local birth data, new housing and existing housing turnover rates.
Skelly has speculated it's at least partly driven by a "flight to quality" as other California school districts endure significant budget cuts.
As one of the 10 percent of California school districts funded under the so-called "basic aid" formula, Palo Alto relies on the state and federal governments for less than 10 percent of its revenue, with 72 percent coming from local property taxes.
But unlike the 90 percent of California districts largely funded on a per-pupil basis, Palo Alto does not get significant revenue based on enrollment, so increased headcount means less to spend per student.
The Garland campus, at 870 N. California Ave. — made surplus decades ago by the school district after enrollment declines — has been leased for the past six years to Stratford Schools, Inc., which runs a preschool-through-fifth-grade program there.
The school board Tuesday voted 5-0 to serve the three years' notice required under the lease, meaning Stratford will have to vacate by June 30, 2014.
Elementary growth projections gave them little choice but to take back Garland, board members said.
"What's really driving this is that we've seen enrollment growth through thick and thin — seemingly independent of economic conditions and seemingly independent of housing turnover," board member Dana Tom said.
"I feel we don't have much choice at this point (but to take back Garland). We need to be able to deal with the growth we expect will continue."
Board members thanked a Stratford representative for the school being a model tenant and said they would like to rent to the company again if other space becomes available.
Officials cited a variety of possible uses for Garland's 24 classrooms, including as a neighborhood elementary school, an alternative program such as language immersion or as a site for preschool and the Young Fives program currently housed at Greendell, adjacent to the Cubberley Community Center at 4000 Middlefield Road.
The last possibility would free up Greendell to become a neighborhood school in a part of the city that has experienced a high level of growth.
Beyond the 24 classrooms at Garland — not likely to be available until fall of 2015 at the earliest — current or pending construction at Ohlone and Fairmeadow elementary schools will provide a net gain of seven new classrooms, with an additional three classrooms expected in planned renovations to Duveneck Elementary School.
Tuesdays' vote was a vindication of sorts for school board member Barb Mitchell, who was the lone voice advocating to take back Garland nearly two years ago.
At the time, the board majority backed off on taking back the campus amid concerns about the recession and informal reports of stalling enrollment.
But Mitchell, predicting enrollment growth would be at the high end, vowed to "shave my head" if the district managed to comfortably accommodate the new children without re-opening Garland as early as 2012.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.