The Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday night backed off from an earlier decision to re-open Garland Elementary School to accommodate enrollment growth.
The board voted 4-1, with Chairman Barb Mitchell dissenting, to continue leasing Garland to the private Stratford School for at least the next three years.
The decision represented a tortured effort by board members to balance serious fiscal concerns against the need to accommodate uncertain enrollment growth -- which may be leveling off.
Given the recession and an as-yet-unsolved $3.4 million "structural deficit" for 2010-2011, the majority of board members said they preferred to take the "fiscally conservative" approach.
But Mitchell, predicting enrollment growth will be on the high end, vowed to "shave my head" if the district manages to accommodate comfortably the likely growth in the next three years without re-opening Garland as a 13th elementary school.
The discussion hinged on various scenarios for enrollment growth in Palo Alto, and underscored the enormous uncertainty of demographic projections.
Just two months ago, the board had approved schematic designs for a $15.5 million renovation of Garland with a plan to re-open the school in 2012.
But around the same time, as the budget outlook grew worse, school officials voiced casual observations that enrollment growth for the 2009-2010 year appeared to be slow, or even flat. Official enrollment tallies are done just once a year, on the 11th day of school in September. The next one will be Sept. 9.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said his recommendation to back off on Garland boiled down to a question of economics.
"We're entering a period in terms of our fiscal stewardship where we have a tremendous challenge to provide the quality education we need for our students. We have a $1.4 million delta between opening and operating a school versus renting the school out.
"When I look at the fiscal situation we have and the ongoing structural challenges and weigh that against the additional school, the reason we're doing this is mostly economic," Skelly said.
If enrollment growth follows medium-range projections, existing facilities will be able to handle it, officials said.
If growth is high, officials offered "contingency" options that include slightly increasing class size, adding classrooms at Fairmeadow School or using space at Greendell School, which is being vacated this month by the Jewish Community Center.
With registration lines out the door in the last few days before schools opened Tuesday, officials now seem to feel next year's enrollment growth will be within mid-range projections despite earlier estimates that hinted at low-end growth or leveling off.
The elementary school head count Tuesday morning was 5,153, somewhat down from the 11th day figures from last September, Co-Chief Business Manager Bob Golton said.
However, there also are 130 "pending arrivals" at the elementary level -- students who registered but did not come to school Tuesday. Based on past experience, about half of those students eventually do show up, placing this year's numbers in the mid-range for growth, officials said.