School district to cancel Garland re-opening

Extension of private school lease likely later this month

The Palo Alto school district is retreating from a plan to re-open Garland Elementary School, amid budget uncertainties and slowing enrollment growth.

Four out of five school board members indicated Tuesday they will back a plan to rescind a termination notice to the private Stratford School, the current tenant at Garland, which is located on North California Avenue between Newell Road and Louis Road.

The four -- all but Board President Barb Mitchell -- also indicated they would recommit to an amended lease with Stratford that runs through June 2015 and requires three years' notice if the district wants to terminate.

A final vote is scheduled for Aug. 25.

Barely six weeks ago, board members approved schematic architectural designs for a $15.5 million renovation of Garland in preparation for 2012 re-opening the campus at 870 N. California Ave.

But the thinking has changed.

State budget cuts leave the district facing a $3 million "structural deficit" in the 2009-2010 school year. And enrollment, until recently growing at a healthy clip, has stalled.

School board members acknowledged they are betting that the recession will put a long-term damper on earlier enrollment projections. They also admitted they could be betting wrong.

But most thought the upside -- saving the $750,000-a-year Stratford lease revenue plus the $650,000-a-year cost of operating a new elementary school -- would be worth it.

Classroom space at the once-overflowing Addison and Duveneck elementary campuses will be freed up by a recent budget-conscious decision to allow as many as 22 students per class in kindergarten through third grade, up from 20, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.

And enrollment growth appears to be slowing.

"In the north (of the city) this year we have considerably fewer kindergartners," Skelly said. "Is it a blip? I don't know. Could we be wrong? Yes."

Skelly said he will revisit an earlier study aimed at finding possibilities for new space in the "north cluster" schools –- Addison, Duveneck and Walter Hays –- in the event the enrollment bet is wrong. So far, the only identified extra space is across town on the Fairmeadow and Juana Briones campuses.

Harking back to the district's painful period of closing elementary schools when enrollment dwindled in the 1970s and early '80s, board member Melissa Baten Caswell said, "It's hard to be crowded but it's worse to close schools. I'd rather be conservative and open schools slower."

But Mitchell appeared more worried about the crowding.

Saying she felt more "bullish" than her colleagues on prospects for an economic –- and enrollment -– recovery, Mitchell said, "I don't have a sense of confidence we have a contingency in place to address growth in the north cluster that prevents overflow."

Having their children "overflowed" to far-flung elementary schools is too disruptive for families and neighborhoods, Mitchell said.


Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 5, 2009 at 11:02 am

Barb,it's a Unified School District. Far flung is usually less than five miles away. Between parents, bicycles and carpools, oh, and let's not forget the nannies, transportation is not a big deal for most families.

Like this comment
Posted by Barb Champion
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 5, 2009 at 11:02 am

A difficult decision to make, I am sure, after the upfront
architectural costs spent on the proposed renovation of the Garland
campus. However, not sure a lease signing until 2015 is prudent,with a 3
year "notice", for the obvious reasons.Garland would be a fine elementary school just the way it is, with some minor updating, should PAUSD need additional classroom space in the future and would be a much more appropriate size for the site and the neighborhood than the recently cancelled proposed expansion.

Like this comment
Posted by Kirkland
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2009 at 11:21 am

I really hope they stick with this decision. Finally some good, sound, fiscal decision making.

Like this comment
Posted by JA3+
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 5, 2009 at 12:50 pm

A fiscally-prudent decision here; congratulations to the Board for a willingness to revisit an earlier decision.

Why a three (3) year notice to Stratford?; is three (3) years standard in today's marketplace?

Why not two (2) years?; offhand, it seems two (2) years gives both sides -- PAUSD; and Stratford -- ample time here.

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Posted by SLE
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 5, 2009 at 2:13 pm

"A fiscally-prudent decision here." Well, maybe, but it would have been nice to have more data. How old is the last demograpers' report?

And of course they're plowing ahead with the 24-carat pool at Gunn and other nifty features included in the bond, so I'll wait to conclude that the board has become truly prudent.

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Posted by Harry
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 7, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Avoiding a $15 million expense seems prudent in this budget environment, but it is hard to imagine that such an expenditure is necessary given that Stratford does just fine in the current facility and PAUSD did before it. I'd like to see the Board do a better job with demographics and modest facilities expenditures.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Aug 7, 2009 at 8:14 pm

A very sound financial decision. Let's use the lease money on the existing schools!

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Posted by SLE
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 8, 2009 at 8:30 am

"Avoiding a $15 million expense seems prudent" Depends. If the district really is growing, and we are locked into another three years with Stratford, and we end up having to install temporary structures around the district AND rebuild Garland, then it's not so prudent. The real question is what is happening demographically.

Like this comment
Posted by Jon S
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Aug 25, 2009 at 1:24 pm

I recall Dr. Skelly making a big deal about district enrollment growth, however it's not surprising that the economic slowdown has put the dampener on growth. It sounds good for the next batch of PAUSD students

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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