School board enthusiastic about property deal
Pending environmental tests, school district likely to approve first acquisition in decades
For the first time in decades, the Palo Alto Unified School District is on the verge of acquiring new property as it contends with rising enrollment, particularly in the southern part of town.
Board of Education members Tuesday night expressed enthusiasm for an $8.5 million deal to acquire a 2.6-acre parcel at 525 San Antonio Road. The property, which housed Peninsula Day Care Center before it closed in June, backs up onto the Greendell School campus, which is contiguous with Cubberley Community Center.
Pending the results of environmental tests, the board is expected to authorize purchase of 525 San Antonio at its next meeting Oct. 11, using funds from Measure A, the $378 million bond voters approved in 2008 for school improvements. The property is currently under contract to be sold to residential developer SummerHill San Antonio Land Holding, but SummerHill has indicated its willingness to sell the property, in turn, to the school district, according to a staff report.
"I'm absolutely thrilled. This is the first proposed addition of public school land in over a generation, ending an old, long streak of school district sales," board member Barb Mitchell said.
She was referring to the sell-off during the 1980s of a number of Palo Alto elementary school sites as enrollment contracted in the post-Baby Boom era.
At its enrollment peak in 1968, Palo Alto had nearly 16,000 students, with three high schools, three middle schools and more than 20 elementary schools. Enrollment declined through the 1970s and '80s, reaching a low of 7,500 in 1989 before trending upward again.
Today, with 12,286 students, Palo Alto has two high schools, three middle schools and 12 elementary schools.
At Tuesday's meeting, board members parsed the nuances of this fall's enrollment data even as they asserted the need for a 20-year long-range plan.
With elementary headcount growing at 4 percent for the past several years, members agreed on the need for new facilities.
But some noted that kindergarten enrollment was flat this fall, wondering whether that should be interpreted as "a blip or a trend."
Despite much discussion of the need for new space in the southern part of Palo Alto, the district has made no formal commitment on how it would use the prospective new property on San Antonio Road. The school board last year also voted to take back the old Garland School site on North California Avenue but has not decided when, or how, that site would come back online.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said there's an urgent need for more middle school space.
"We're going to hit a middle school problem before we hit an elementary problem," she said. "We can put a few more kids in a classroom, put a portable here, add another building at (an elementary) site, but we hit maximum at our middle schools faster than that.
"Certainly within the next five years were going to need a solution."
Mitchell said a decision on the use of Garland is also needed.
"The sooner we can make that decision, the longer we have as an implementation and transition period to help community members and staff plan the implementation," she said.
Board Vice President Camille Townsend said she hoped to avoid stirring up premature anxieties about school boundary changes.
"Uncertainty does unnerve people. ... In the past it was a discussion that created great uncertainty and got a lot of anger going. I want to make sure our conversations are taken as conversations, and that things are fluid until we have to make a decision. Otherwise people get positional before they need to," Townsend said.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.