School district closes first land purchase in a half century
HP co-founder David Packard guided city's last era of school building
The Palo Alto school district Tuesday completed its purchase of 2.6 acres of land at 525 San Antonio Road — the first land acquisition for Palo Alto schools in a half century.
Officials have yet to specify a use for the former Peninsula Day Care parcel, but some have suggested it's a prime spot for a new elementary school to accommodate unexpectedly high elementary-age growth in the southern part of town.
"This is a big deal," school board President Melissa Baten Caswell said of the land deal.
"It's been a long time since the Palo Alto Unified School District moved forward on acquiring any property, so this is big news."
The last time Palo Alto schools were building new campuses, Baby Boomers were in diapers.
HP co-founder David Packard was an elected member of the Palo Alto Board of Education. While running his fledgling company, Packard also guided widespread construction of elementary schools in south Palo Alto during his school board tenure from 1947 to 1956.
Historical documents — mostly in the form of newspaper clips from the old Palo Alto Times — were provided to the Weekly by Bob French, a retired English teacher and unofficial historian for the Palo Alto school district.
"We did fairly well in getting our schools set up," David Packard recalled in a 1991 interview with the Peninsula Times-Tribune newspaper.
"There was obviously going to be an increase in school population. All you needed to do was find out how many babies were born each year and put some factor in to account for the influx, and you'd know how many kids you were going to have in school in any grade in the following years," he said.
"A little third-grade arithmetic was all it took."
Compared to the nearly $3.3-million-per-acre price of the school district's new San Antonio acquisition, land was a bargain in the first half of the 20th century. Open space was abundant in Palo Alto, and the district acquired property in every decade from the 1920s to the 1950s at prices ranging from $1,100 to $3,800 per acre.
In 1925, the school district paid $1,100 an acre for land on Middlefield Road across from what is now the Midtown Safeway. The 6.5-acre parcel was dedicated in 1947 as "South Palo Alto School" and later was renamed Herbert Hoover Elementary School before being closed and sold off for housing.
In 1935, 16 acres near Middlefield and Santa Rita Avenue was acquired for $14,000 for what was to become Jordan Junior High School. Eight acres were later added to the parcel and, in 1936, voters by a six-to-one margin approved a $360,000 bond to build the school named for Stanford University's first president.
In 1940, the school district agreed to pay $1,230 an acre for dairy land on Barron Avenue that is now Barron Park Elementary School.
The acquisition for Cubberley High School came in 1952 as a result of a condemnation suit filed by the school board, according to an Oct. 17, 1952, article in the Palo Alto Times.
A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled the district must pay $134,596 — about $3,800 an acre — for the 35.4-acre site near Middlefield and Charleston roads.
Cubberley opened in 1956 as Palo Alto's second high school and Gunn, the third high school, opened in 1964.
Packard and others advocated a standard design for classrooms and elementary schools, making it "possible for us to meet the classroom needs and keep the system within a budget," he said.
After nine years on the school board, Packard announced his resignation in 1956 — the year before Hewlett-Packard Company went public — saying he was "too pressed for time to continue."
At the height of Baby Boom enrollment in 1967, the school district had a headcount of 15,575 students with 22 elementary schools, three high schools and three junior high schools.
As enrollment declined through the 1970s and '80s before hitting a low of 7,500 in 1989, the district closed schools and sold off many acres for housing.
Cubberley closed in 1979.
In February 1987, the school board voted to convert Gunn into the district's sole middle school, with a plan to leave Paly the community's single high school. The contentious vote prompted an electoral revolt that year, and a new school board majority reversed the decision as soon as members were sworn in.
Enrollment has been climbing since 1989, and this fall stands at 12,286, with 12 elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools.
Without outlining specifics, the school board has asserted the district will need to take back the Cubberley campus, perhaps in stages, over the next decade or so. Currently the district earns more than $7 million a year by leasing the old high school campus to the City of Palo Alto for use as a community center.
That lease expires in 2014, and both bodies are launching public discussions on the future of the 35-acre campus.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.