News

School enrollment rides the roller coaster

With bumper crops of kindergartners, school district chugs uphill

With Palo Alto elementary classrooms filled to overflowing this fall, old timers wince at the memory of having closed 11 of the city's 22 elementary schools a quarter century ago.

Back in the 1980s, campus after campus was shuttered as enrollment fell and post-Proposition 13 school budgets had planners terrified of going broke.

One fateful night in February 1987, the Board of Education voted to convert Gunn into the district's sole middle school -- with a plan to leave Paly as the community's single high school.

Oh baby, how times have changed.

After what seemed like an enrollment free fall when Baby Boomers graduated, Palo Alto classrooms are crowded again.

This year, at 12,024, enrollment is aiming toward the district's all-time high of 15,575 at the crest of the Baby Boom -- and shows no sign of slowing down.

"One of our biggest challenges we have is providing enough capacity for all of our students," Superintendent Kevin Skelly said.

"We keep riding this (enrollment) roller coaster and it's going up. We're chugging up this hill and the hill seems to be getting steeper, not less steep."

Palo Alto voters historically have offered enthusiastic support to their high-performing, nationally ranked public schools. Two years ago, residents overwhelmingly backed a $378 million facilities bond to add classrooms and other spaces to the district's 17 campuses and modernize them for the coming decades.

Many of those millions have been committed. Students at Gunn, Paly and Ohlone are co-existing with major construction on their campuses this fall. Renovations at the three middle schools and other elementary campuses are in the planning stages.

But the full allocation of bond funds is not yet decided, and plans are subject to change. Even as existing campuses are built out, planners are scouting elsewhere for more classroom space.

Of the 344 additional K-12 students this fall, more than two-thirds come at the elementary level -- shattering upper-end growth projections for that group.

That bumper crop is bound to keep cohorts large as they work their way through the system.

School trend-watchers recently have noticed a new phenomenon that could add to those already high numbers -- an increasing rate of families moving into town who already have school-age children.

And once-reliable patterns of the past -- such as enrollment dips during economic recessions -- have not held true lately, suggesting possibly steeper growth ahead.

For example, Palo Alto housing turnover in 2008 and 2009 fell substantially short of the typical 500 to 600 transactions per year, but enrollment growth proceeded apace.

Another simple harbinger -- kindergarten headcount -- was 457 in 1981-1982; 744 in 1996-1997; and 905 this fall.

Unlike the last enrollment boom era of the late 1960s, the Palo Alto Unified School District this time has less real estate to accommodate the growth.

Storied old elementary schools, with names like Van Auken, Ortega, Ross Road and Crescent Park, are long shuttered and demolished and, in many cases, paved over with housing.

The aging Cubberley campus, which served as a comprehensive high school from 1956 until closing in 1979, operates as a community center under a lease agreement with the City of Palo Alto.

To meet the fastest-growing demand for space in the younger grades, the school district is erecting or planning to build once unheard of two-story classroom buildings at Ohlone, Fairmeadow and JLS.

Gunn and Paly campuses are being renovated to accommodate up to 2,300 students apiece.

Demographic projections are, at best, an imprecise art and science.

As they closed schools in the 1970s and 1980s, community leaders were analyzing real estate turnover and local birth records, among other data.

One of their dominant conclusions -- that Palo Alto's steep housing prices posed an insurmountable barrier for any significant number of couples with young children to settle here -- turned out to be just about 100 percent wrong.

That assumption failed to anticipate a technology boom that would mint 25-year-old millionaires and continue to push prices upward.

The ill-fated vote to close Gunn as a high school sparked a November 1987 school board election remembered as one of the most fiercely fought in city history.

The advocates of keeping Gunn as it was won big -- and turned the conventional wisdom of the city's power structure on its head.

On the very night they took office the newly elected insurgents, Stanford University Professor Henry Levin and parent volunteer Diane Reklis, pushed through a reversal of the Gunn decision.

Within three years, enrollment began the steady increase that continues today -- though not as steeply as in the Baby Boom era.

As the enrollment roller coaster clatters upward, leaders year by year must make incremental calls about where to put new classrooms.

A case in point -- a recent mini-drama over whether to re-open Garland Elementary School, at 870 N. California Ave. -- illustrates how agonizing those choices can be.

In 2008 and 2009, architects hired by the school district worked up a blueprint for a $15.5 million renovation of Garland, with a plan to re-open it as the district's 13th elementary school in 2012.

But in August 2009 -- barely six weeks after giving the thumbs up to the architect's "schematic designs" -- the school board got cold feet.

Members were staring down projected multi-year, multi-million dollar "structural deficits," a scary state budget outlook, and anecdotal evidence that Palo Alto enrollment was in a recession-induced stall.

In a rare split vote on the consensus-minded board, four of the five members opted for the fiscally conservative decision to scratch the Garland re-opening and extend a $750,000 lease with the private Stratford School, committing the district at least through 2013.

The lone dissenter, then-board president Barb Mitchell, vowed she would "shave (her) head" if the district managed to comfortably accommodate the growth she foresaw in the next three years without re-opening Garland.

To date, Mitchell still has her full head of hair -- but she is nervous.

"The bottom line is to look at all the indicators we can -- even though none of them provide certainty -- and make decisions incrementally, based on the most current information. And hopefully stay one step ahead of the children coming in," Mitchell said.

Having enough classroom space is one thing. Having the space in the right part of town -- where the growth is -- is something else entirely.

In days gone by, families generally could count on sending their kids to the nearest elementary school.

But with elementary schools increasingly maxing out and "overflowing" their neighborhood kids to other campuses, that's no longer much of guarantee.

A new family in town may find the neighborhood school has room for their third-grader, but not for their fourth-grader or their kindergartner -- but that a campus across the city can accommodate all three.

Those "overflow" conditions have ripple effects on family logistics, neighborhood health and citywide traffic that are worrisome to Mitchell and others.

"Schools are important for the neighborhood character we all value -- getting to know your neighbors, playing with your neighbors, walking to school with your neighbors," Mitchell said.

It is tricky, she said, to "plan classrooms without spending money in the wrong places, or locking ourselves in, should trends change."

Notwithstanding the sell-off of school property in the 1970s and 1980s, the district retains two elementary sites, Garland, and Fremont Hills at 26800 Fremont Road in Los Altos Hills (currently leased to Pinewood School), which in time could be taken back.

A third elementary campus -- Greendell, at 4120 Middlefield Road -- is occupied by the district-run preschool programs Pre-School Family, Young Fives and Springboard to Kindergarten.

In addition, the school district retains a right of first refusal on a fourth elementary campus, the now city-owned Ventura site at 3990 Ventura Court. It currently serves as a community center.

"In an ideal planning scenario we want to build classrooms where the kids live so they're not commuting all across town," Mitchell said.

In theory, Cubberley remains available as a third high school, and Garland and Fremont Hills as additional elementary campuses. But there is no such space on tap for another middle school.

"At the middle school level, we're heading up to 1,000 kids at Jordan and JLS -- and that's about the number we hit when we decided we needed a third middle school," Mitchell said.

"The third middle school (Terman, re-opened in 2001) has gobbled up all the growth since then and we're back to where we were. We've got the same dynamic, a higher growth projection and a huge challenge of considering alternatives there.

"Where would we put a fourth middle school, and what would the trade-offs be? It's the identical dilemma we have at the high school level, except we have Cubberley."

Until recently, the school board's Policy on School Size and Enrollment dictated that the "desired range" for elementary school headcount is 340 to 450 students; for middle schools, 600 to 950 students and for high schools, 1,200 to 1,950 students.

Two years ago, as some campuses began to exceed those ranges, the board replaced the old policy with less specific language.

The new policy contains no numbers.

It "places a high priority on having students attend their neighborhood schools," while acknowledging practical difficulties in consistently achieving that goal.

It encourages principals to "develop methods to promote student connections within the larger school context."

Board members agree the district must stay nimble and be ready to handle the growth, wherever it occurs.

"Our biggest problem right now is elementary school space, and it's pretty hard to match where the growth is to where our space actually resides," Board Vice-President Melissa Baten Caswell said.

"We really need to figure out how to accommodate growth in the southeast area, where the new town homes are. If you look at the schools over there (Fairmeadow, Palo Verde, El Carmelo, they're all impacted (by overflow)."

Elementary enrollment growth in the past four or five years alone "could fill an elementary school," she noted.

"We grew 200-something kids this year at the elementary level. The elementary schools are usually under 500, so it doesn't take long to fill one, and that's our biggest issue.

"Of course, that's going to roll into middle school and high school in the long term."

As for Garland, Caswell said: "Would it give us more space? Yes. But it wouldn't give us more space where the kids are.

"We could redraw boundaries, but having kids cross Oregon Expressway is a tough decision. I'm not saying we wouldn't make it, but it's a tough decision to make."

With a nervous eye on the roller coaster -- and the haunting memory of past land sales -- the school district has been hanging tough with any extra space under its control, and reaching for more.

To date it has rebuffed bids from the Foothill-De Anza Community College District to purchase and redevelop 8 acres of the 35-acre Cubberley site into a state-of-the-art satellite campus to serve the Palo Alto community.

The district recently asserted an interest in acquiring a 3-acre parcel adjacent to the Greendell campus -- currently under contract with a housing developer.

The parcel, at 525 San Antonio Road, has for decades been occupied by the Peninsula Day Care Center. The center's owner told families earlier this year he'll close the day care operation in June 2011 in order to retire.

Developer SummerHill Homes has unveiled preliminary plans to build 26 single-family, 3- and 4-bedroom homes on the property.

School Superintendent Skelly, without indicating specific plans, said the Peninsula Day Care parcel is of interest to the school district because of its size and location.

"We don't know what will happen with enrollment -- all of us who have to plan for classroom space certainly wish we did," he said.

"If you look at the last 20 years, it seems that our enrollment is impervious to some factors. Whether the economy is good or bad, enrollment continues to increase.

"If you look at school districts across the country, there seems to be a growing premium on quality education.

"Families are more willing to make sacrifices in order to move their students to quality schools. We look at the future, and we believe our growth is going to continue."

School board member Mitchell notes that the "squeaky wheels" on the roller coaster aren't making any noise because they are families who haven't even moved to Palo Alto yet.

"It's up to the rest of us who care about how our schools have been -- either for altruistic purposes, sentimental purposes, or property-value purposes -- to figure this out," she said.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Kids-Can-Learn-In-2nd-Floor-Classrooms
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 22, 2010 at 7:43 pm

And Palo Alto can't build 2-story schools, why?


Like this comment
Posted by None
a resident of Mountain View
on Oct 22, 2010 at 8:01 pm

3 schools are going to a 2 story level building and have broken ground. "To meet the fastest-growing demand for space in the younger grades, the school district is erecting or planning to build once unheard of two-story classroom buildings at Ohlone, Fairmeadow and JLS." Other schools will let us know as they develop their plans.


Like this comment
Posted by Zin
a resident of Duveneck School
on Oct 22, 2010 at 9:54 pm

The city must fight mandatory affordable housing construction quotas and reevaluate overall housing expansion plan.


Like this comment
Posted by Zin
a resident of Duveneck School
on Oct 22, 2010 at 9:54 pm

The city must fight mandatory affordable housing construction quotas and reevaluate overall housing expansion plan.


Like this comment
Posted by Shame on PAUSD
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Oct 22, 2010 at 11:38 pm

PAUSD has the enviable opportunity to buy the day care center at San Antonio and use it as a preschool (which is currently housed at Greendell). Then Greendell can be used to accommodate the bulging population growth in South Palo Alto. Or will we go with the failed philosophy of selling schools, which by the way were paid for by the Palo Alto taxpayers, building houses which attract schoolchildren, then not having a school for them. It is time to right the wrongs of the past!


Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Oct 23, 2010 at 7:04 am

> building houses which attract schoolchildren, then not having a
> school for them. It is time to right the wrongs of the past

Leaving those properties empty, requiring maintenance, would have been a bad public policy decision. Selling the properties was the only thing that the PAUSD could rationally have done at the time. It's a shame that the money from those sales was not properly managed, however. Records show that the proceeds of those property sales (paid for with bond money) was slowly moved into the District's General Fund, and used to pay staff salaries. While legal, these sorts of actions should be seen as gross mismanagement of the public trust.

What's needed now is moving to distance learning, shifting to e-books, so that the underused, and over-funded, libraries can be repurposed to tasks more suitable in a 21st century world.

Simply recreating a 1950s educational environment, but paying 21st century salaries, will be seen as a bigger problem for the taxpayers than that of selling of the unused school properties in the 1980s.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2010 at 8:53 am

What is really crucial is that the school impact fee, the fee that those who remodel their homes, build new homes and the developers who build the new developments pay, should be the funds that pay for the purchase of the Peninsula Day Care Center and the new buildings.

It is not fair that we are looking at the prospect of a new school bond to pay for a new school when the real problem is new housing which attracts new residents.

Saying that we only want new senior housing so that we don't attract more families is moot. The seniors who are likely to move into this new housing are probably selling Palo Alto 4 bedroom homes which will produce the families. I was talking to one senior yesterday who was just looking at the possibility of doing just that for herself and her husband. Their large home was now too big and needed too much upkeep for them but they wanted to stay in Palo Alto.

But, the school impact fee is the key. What has this money been used for in the past? Portables?


Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 23, 2010 at 11:29 am

Shame on PAUSD and Joe: you are rehashing 35 year old history. Since I was around then I'll correct your perception of history. In 1976 or thereabout the voters of Palo Alto turned down a School District building bond measure with the cry: "They've got surplus school properties they can sell to raise money". It was the voters of PA that defeated the bond measure that forced the District to start selling off one surplus school a year to raise money to refurbish the schools they intended to keep.

Then the terrible accident happened when a teenager dove into the Cubberley swimming pool at night and was killed. The School District's insurance company paid out millions in compensation and ordered the Schoool District to board up all empty schools and post a guard at each one 24 hours a day.

The School District could not afford this and nobody wanted to live near boarded up schools anyway, so some of the surplus schools were sold off. They could not be leased out because only private schools wanted to lease schools, and that just took the dwindling population of school kids out of the public schools.

However, the School District did retained six empty elementary schools, two of which have been reopened. They still have access to four if they need them, Fremont Hills, Garland, Greendell and the City owned Ventura.

This all happened some 30 years ago and those were very different times than today. We now need to move on to the 21st century and build two story learning pods for our future growth.



Like this comment
Posted by Shame on PAUSD
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm

I appreciate your analysis of the situation. However, you neglect to recognize the crux of the problem. The most expensive part of the school is the land. And PAUSD, in its wisdom had decided to sell the land (and destroy the building). For what? For monster houses! You can never get the land back no matter how many stories you add to the existing buildings. BTW, Palo Alto taxpayers paid for the land and the buildings--we were not asked if the buildings could be destroyed and the land sold. Where did the money go? Into the hands of developers. PAUSD chose to shortchange its future generations. Again, Shame on PAUSD!


Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 23, 2010 at 5:13 pm

"We were not asked if the buildings could be destroyed and the land sold" The voters of PA not the School District were asked to pass a bond measure which we voted down.

As Superintendent Newman Walker ones famously said: "I'm not in the real estate business." However the PAUSD did have the foresight to keep six of the closed and empty elementary schools.

FYI the School District sold off 9 acres of land at Natoma and Black Mountain Road in Los Altos Hills and 18 acres of land high up Page Mill Road also in LAH, it was to be a high school. I don't know how many PA residents would be willing to go that far for school. Also sold were two 5 acre parcels Ross Road and De Anza, too small for modern elementary schools.

All this happened more than 30 years ago, who knew then how much the land would be worth 30 years later.


Like this comment
Posted by A Palo Alto Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 23, 2010 at 6:15 pm

"That bumper crop is bound to keep cohorts large as they work their way through the system."

What the heck does this sentence mean?


Like this comment
Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2010 at 8:42 pm

@Kids...2nd Floor,
You asked: Palo Alto can't build 2-story schools, why?

PAUSD is building 2-story schools. It's not CAN'T they, but SHOULD they.

First of all, 2-story schools cost more per square foot than 1-story schools. So there is a huge cost premium. School construction is not like commercial development.

Here's a link to a State of California document: Public School Construction Cost Reduction Guidelines which is "an identification of some of the key issues and processes
that inflate the cost of construction, and suggestions of how to avoid them":
Web Link

It says:
"In general, it is not cost effective to use multistory construction just to save land cost. The multistory construction cost is more expensive than one story, and generally there is not a significant reduction in land usage (and therefore cost) to offset the additional construction cost.


Like this comment
Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Secondly, two-story buildings have greater life cycle costs. They have elevator maintenance and repair costs. They have greater liability costs (student accidents, injuries and deaths associated with staircases), greater workman's comp (teachers are even more at risk from stairway accidents, at my high school, teachers weren't allowed to use the stairs because of that), require more involved emergency plans and safety measures (fires and earthquakes), and can be more dangerous to evacuate (or simply more dangerous if they aren't built properly).

We are only building two-story buildings so that we can enlarge the Gunn and Paly campuses. That's costing millions just in the premium to build up that we could be using to reopen Cubbereley instead.

We are planning on enlarging Gunn and Paly to make them schools of such a size that we "build in" problems of large school size that districts around the country are building smaller schools to get rid of: diminished academic outcomes, greater achievement gap, more bullying and social problems, including a reduction in connectedness. It's going completely in the wrong direction given recent tragedies and concerns in our district. (And frankly, building in a potential hazard right on campus -- no need for tracks when you have a tall building to try right at Gunn, something that happened when I was in school elsewhere.)

Just as with the selling of the old school sites, by the time people realize all of this, this board and Skelley will be long gone. Barb Mitchell's quote is spot on: It's up to the rest of us who care about how our schools have been -- either for altruistic purposes, sentimental purposes, or property-value purposes -- to figure this out," she said.


Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Observer says: "That's costing millions just in the premium to build up that we could be using to reopen Cubberley instead."

If Cubberley is re-opened as a school the School District will have to float another bond measure because Cubberley is not earthquake safe and can never be used again as a school unless it is torn down and rebuilt.

Reopening Cubberley will be far more expensive than building additional classrooms at Gunn and Paly. Operating a third high school will cost millions in overhead, so it makes sense to enlarge both Gunn and Paly.


Like this comment
Posted by Erin
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 24, 2010 at 7:47 am

A Palo Alto Parent asks: "That bumper crop is bound to keep cohorts large as they work their way through the system."

"What the heck does this sentence mean?"

That means that even if enrollment dips in the future, the current large group of kids who are in Kindergarten now will continue in the school system up through middle school and high school where our schools are already full or very crowded. The district has some very serious problems that they need to deal with. The first is elementary space but middle school and high school space is hot on it's heels.


Like this comment
Posted by A neighbor
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 24, 2010 at 9:33 am

Um. . . If we ended our cowardly acceptance of the ridiculous Tinsley Transfer program, ended preferences for Palo Alto staff and actually started aggressively weeding out the blatantly illegal students, maybe we wouldn't have such a problem with over-enrollment.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2010 at 10:40 am

I agree that residents need to work this out. Putting a second story on schools is not the answer. First we need to confront the big lie that population in the Bay Area has to grow in order for residents to prosper. ABAG is supporting failed policy. I've lived in the Bay Area for 60 years and have watched the growth. Where is the prosperity? In the hands of a few.

I agree that the day care that is closing should not be replaced with housing.


Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2010 at 10:43 am

Here's an idea; re-open Garland and Greendell as elementary schools and put the 6th grade back in the elementary schools. After all it took years to convince parents that the 6th grade could survive in Middle School!!!


Like this comment
Posted by Shame on PAUSD
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2010 at 11:32 am

If Cubberley is so unsafe, why are we allowing preschoolers through adults to use the building. It seems smoke and mirrors to me. Should something happen, PAUSD is allowing itself to be sued since it is now known that this school is unsafe. A portion of the population refuses to admit that the shift has been made to the South; that is where the growth is.


Like this comment
Posted by madeup
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Oct 24, 2010 at 1:25 pm

ABAG is just a way of undermining local control. ABAG makes up its numbers and then demands compliance. It claims this is all for the greater good but it is control of the many by the few.


Like this comment
Posted by Kids-Can-Learn-In-2nd-Floor-Classrooms
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2010 at 2:02 pm

> First of all, 2-story schools cost more per square foot than
> 1-story schools. So there is a huge cost premium. School
> construction is not like commercial development.

This is true to the extent that there is adequate land to handle additional 1-story buildings. In places like Palo Alto, land goes for about $5M an acre (and maybe more in the future). This land cost needs to be considered in any cost/benefit analysis. By the way, schools all over the US seem to have dealt with this additional expense. Why shouldn't Palo Alto consider it.

> They have greater liability costs (student accidents, injuries and
> deaths associated with staircases), greater workman's comp (teachers > are even more at risk from stairway accidents, at my high school,
> teachers weren't allowed to use the stairs because of that), require > more involved emergency plans and safety measures (fires and
> earthquakes), and can be more dangerous to evacuate (or simply more > dangerous if they aren't built properly)

What utter gobblegook. Most people who live in Palo Alto grew up somewhere else--typically in places with multi-story schools (large Eastern cities, for example). Who ever heard of teachers falling down stairs? Or teachers refusing to work on 2nd/3rd floors? Good God .. is learning to "think like this" the product of a public, or private, education?

> What is really crucial is that the school impact fee

School impact fees are set by the State--using a "one-size fits all" formula, which doesn't really consider the actual impact of new students on the capital needs of a given school district. While the idea of an "impact fee" has merit, the execution of the idea leaves much to be desired. This fee hasn't generated that much money for the PAUSD.

> Shame on PAUSD and Joe: you are rehashing 35 year old history

Most people didn't live in Palo Alto 35 years ago, so calling "Shame on you for rehashing..." is pretty closed minded. History should belong to all of us, not just the privileged few. But thank you for sharing, anyway.

> All this happened more than 30 years ago, who knew then how
> much the land would be worth 30 years later.

Well .. given that Manhattan sold for $24 dollars originally, maybe guessing that everything goes up over time would be a good place to start ..


Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 24, 2010 at 4:33 pm

Kids-Can-Learn, I enjoyed your comment about teachers falling down stairs in school builidng with 2nd floors. What I regret you may be neglecting to take into account is this is CALIFORNIA we're speaking about. And it's sue-happy here. So the fact that many of us attended schools with multi-story buildings elsewhere is irrelevant. That said, looking at the crazy land costs here, I do think we should have multi-story school buildings - maybe get everyone to sign a release so they won't sue when they trip :)


Like this comment
Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2010 at 10:51 pm

@anonymous and Kids...2ndStory,
Crazy land costs are irrelevant. We already own the land at Gunn and Paly. Our costs are all building costs, which for public schools are so high for multistory, the state investigation of this issue recommends single story even where the land costs (in California) are at stake, except in very crowded urban areas where there simply is no land, which is not our situation.

The state document points out that you don't save nearly as much footprint as you think, either. I did a backofenvelope look at what was being saved by the two stories in that first building at Gunn, and it's on the order of 1% of the BUILDABLE area, less than 1% of the campus area. But, planners believe they can't make creative use of space and must go two-story -- but only because we have to have so many students on those campuses. But is anyone talking about what that is likely to do to the school quality and social environment?

@Neighbor wrote: "If Cubberley is re-opened as a school the School District will have to float another bond measure ..."

Not true. Look at Measure A. It was CLEARLY written to allow the board to buy back the land at Cubberley and fix it up if they deemed it necessary. Not even a stretch. Skelley has been talking about buying that preschool property -- where do you think he's thinking of getting the funds? He knows, he's read the bond.

The city has offered to sell that 8 acres at Cubberley back to the district at bargain basement prices. We have the money from the bond, the ability to use it, growing enrollments, and a depressed economy/land prices -- the need and all the stars aligned to buy it back.

You also wrote:
"Reopening Cubberley will be far more expensive than building additional classrooms at Gunn and Paly. Operating a third high school will cost millions in overhead, so it makes sense to enlarge both Gunn and Paly."

And you know this how? The problem with this whole project is that people making decisions, as you just did, make these sweeping judgments with absolutely no hard facts to back them up, no hard look at what the tradeoffs are, no strategic thinking with problem solving to see how we can get the best for our kids for the money.

We're spending money for the purpose of improving education in this district, while also improving the social environment and support, so from that standpoint, spending money to get schools larger than 2100 students (the size where quality really starts to elbow down) does not make sense. It makes even less sense when you realize that we're putting in expensive two-story buildings to do this.

There is a u-shaped cost curve for school operational costs versus size, at some point, things become less efficient. Operational costs at Gunn and Paly area higher at 2300 than at 1500, and you have to hire teachers for the students no matter where they are. Sure, there may be some things that are more expensive, but there are two big problems with your argument:
1) No one has made an actual, serious comparison, and
2) You aren't even considering the cost savings from renovating Cubberley and not having to build for so many students at Gunn and Paly, maybe even reducing the sizes of those schools.

If Cubberley were opened as a choice school, it could take students from both Paly and Gunn enrollment areas. Every choice program in this district has a waiting list -- the district would instantly have complete control over enrollments at all three schools and would be able to smoothly handle fluctuations and growth. If the choice program were developed with Foothill (if that door isn't closed), it could bring money or other resources from outside.


Like this comment
Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Resident,
You wrote, "I agree that residents need to work this out. Putting a second story on schools is not the answer. "

I agree wholeheartedly with you, but unfortunately, as we speak, two story buildings are in the works. It's not too late to change (and save most of the costs), but will be soon.

Residents can only work this out if the district office starts communicating with residents about the trade-offs and where this course will take us, or starts caring about what this community wants.


Like this comment
Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2010 at 11:55 pm

@Kids ...2nd Story,
Read my sentence again. If I did not clarify that I went to school somewhere else, it makes it seem as if I am talking about suicide deaths/jumping from a tall building at Gunn in the past rather than elsewhere. I was simply clarifying that I wasn't speaking about Gunn from my past.

You asked "Who ever heard of teachers falling down stairs?" Well, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, for one. In this article on Stairway Falls, Web Link
it points out that "falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries in the U.S. In 2003, there were 18,044 fall-related deaths; in the same year, fall-related injuries were responsible for more than 701,000 hospitalizations ... In addition, falls were reported to have led to nearly 7.2 million emergency department visits for which patients were treated and released (i.e., at least 1 person in 40 each year)."

And, from a personal injury law site: "Stairway falls remain a leading cause of non-intentional injuries."

Because of this, liability costs do go up with stairways. I have seen at least one academic paper from England reporting that TEACHERS are more likely to suffer injury from stairway falls than even students. I should have been more clear in my previous post -- teachers at my high school were not allowed to take the stairs because of a past lawsuit and liability, not because of the statistics on teachers falling. They were required to take the elevators only.

The book The Staircase: Studies of Hazards, Falls and Safer Design says, "In the workplace in the United States, falls on stairs have been found to be one of the major causes of compensation claims and lost work hours."

Here's a statement from a pamphlet for "teachers and classrooms assistants" (UK)
Web Link
"Most major injuries in schools are caused by ‘low’ falls (below two metres) and involve stairs."

(BTW, I never said anything about teachers refusing to work on 2nd/3rd stories. Read before you shoot from the hip. At my high school, the teachers were simply not allowed, by district policy to take the stairs, they were forced to take the elevators because of liability.)

While your handwaving and calling anything you don't like "gobbledygook" despite the facts is just annoying, people planning the future of our district have done much the same handwaving in making these big, expensive decisions that will have such a major impact on our children. I don't know about you, but I voted for some of them, and have been a support of K.S. because I thought they would do that kind of examination, but so far, no.


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Posted by Kids-Can-Learn-In-2nd-Floor-Classrooms
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2010 at 6:46 am

> And, from a personal injury law site: "Stairway falls remain
> a leading cause of non-intentional injuries."

But what does the data show for schools? How many people have been killed falling down school stairs? It might be interesting to compare the number of kids killed on school campuses over drugs, or other reasons, to the number of people killed from falling down school stairs. Or here in Palo Alto, the number of people killed from suicide vs killed on campus stairs (there is 100 years of history at Palo Alto High School).

> teachers at my high school were not allowed to take the stairs
> because of a past lawsuit and liability

I won't challenge the statement, but suggest that this is a very isolated incident. There were no elevators at my 3-story high school, so teachers used the stairs like the students. I don't remember any injuries, or deaths, although I have no doubt that one or two people tripped, from moving too quickly.

>> whoever heard of teachers falling down stairs?

From the link cited:

> In this study, the authors retrospectively analyzed 80 stairway

It's probably impossible to know the number of trips that students/teachers make up/down stairs in American schools (much less world-wide--but it's no doubt more than a billion trips a week) ... and now we have a study that looks at 80 falls. Even using the 20K+ number of falls cited (but no number provided for schools) .. the number of falls is infinitesimally small.

With schools having to consider drug-related violence, students/teachers/staff going "mental", small airplanes crashing into schools, earthquakes, terrorism--just to name a few--the idea of not building 2nd stories on school buildings because of "falls" demonstrates how things get so out-of-control in the public planning process.

When I said: "whoever heard of teachers falling .." I should have clarified this statement with: "in such large numbers so that this is a concern of every school administration"? I challenge anyone to provide statistics that prove that at some point in time schools that are not constrained to single floors will be shut down because they are considered "hazardous to the health of teachers".

> despite the facts is just annoying

It's called the "public process" .. so get used to it. If it's too annoying .. find something else to do with your time other than throwing a lot of useless details at questions of public expenditures in blogs like this one. Oh, and given what a mess our public school system is, there's really not much reason to be "impressed" with all of those highly paid, unaccountable, "experts". Because when they are wrong (as they often are), it's the taxpayer who ends up taking it "in the shorts".

> two-story buildings have greater life cycle costs

Given how non-transparent school maintenance costs are to the general public, statements like this need to be taken with a grain of salt. The PAUSD does not publish details about its maintenance costs, as is the case with most school districts. Ultimately, the source of this information needs to be called into question. And, there are trade-offs--for instance, what is the cost of elevator repair vs the cost of the extra roofing/re-roofing over a 30-year period? And heating costs--is there a benefit to two-story/three-story buildings relative to heating/cooling costs vs 1-story buildings? Yes, there is. How much requires detailed analysis of numerous schools (building types/heating/cooling plants,etc.). So .. just "asserting" that something is true doesn't make it so. And, just because a web-site pushing 1-story schools makes a case for 1-story schools, doesn't mean that there isn't a case for multi-story schools.

We (the US Taxpayers) now dedicate about 8% of the GDP to public education. The costs of building schools has gone out-of-sight, in part due to craziness like this. If we are afraid to build schools with multiple stories, what does that say about building multi-story buildings in the private sector?


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2010 at 8:21 am

Since the discussion on 2nd storey schools appears to be getting petty, the bigger question is that putting multi-storey buildings to increase the student body isn't really helping and might be hindering in so many ways.

Our elementary campuses are not huge and packing students into these small sites cause serious playground problems. At present, there are lunch time activities in many schools to keep kids from running around in the playground. This is absurd as at this age these kids need to be running around at lunch time to keep them healthy and not overweight, to keep their bodies actives so that they can sit still in the classroom, and to learn social skills with this type of free time play (remember kids no longer go out to play in the neighborhoods the way we used to). On top of this we are getting all types of neighborhood issues with cramming kids into these schools, traffic issues, parking issues (teachers parking is very necessary when we have teachers who commute long distances to get here), multi purpose room sharing and space for concerts, etc.

High schools getting bigger is often discussed here and some of the same issues with parking, traffic, and also space on football teams and leads in the school play don't increase on top of a sense of belonging to a large school are all detrimental.

Large schools are not what many of us who moved here when our highschoolers hadn't even started kindergarten. We liked the small neighborhood school we saw and felt the size of the high schools was comfortable. Now that our kids are much older we see that some of these values no longer exist.

Building 2nd storeys may house the kids but won't help give them a smaller school experience.


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Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2010 at 10:48 am

If Cubberley was reopened as a high school, how many of you would be willing to transfer your kids out of Gunn or Paly to attend Cubberley?

Both Gunn and Paly have high reputations amongst college recruiters, Cubberley has no reputation at all.

Several years ago the School District did a poll on this and found that parents were unwilling to even consider transferring their children to Cubberley. Therefore, if Cubberley were reopened who would attend?

Send your own children to Cubberley if you advocate reopening it, not anyone elses.


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Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2010 at 10:48 am

@Kids,
The bottom line is: you wrote "The costs of building schools has gone out-of-sight, in part due to craziness like this. If we are afraid to build schools with multiple stories..."

No, it's gone out of sight because people like you, who handwave based on an emotional perspective and don't sit down and systematically look at the facts and options, and how to get the best results for the least money. The fact is, when the state of California studied what raises costs in public school construction (see link in my previous post), they concluded that building multiple stories in public school construction is so much more expensive than single story, it's not worth it even factoring in land costs.

I was pointing out other cost issues, including maintenance costs, that no one seems to be factoring in. Elevator inspections and maintenance are a fixed cost that the district will incur and cannot avoid from the moment the buildings go into commission. Whether you believe the academic studies (well beyond what I have posted) and the government agencies that stairway falls are a major cause of injury in this country or not is irrelevant, because liability costs go up. Citing past experience in Palo Alto is also irrelevant, because we're essentially a single-story district, even Paly is still virtually all single story.

You're getting all caught up (in a fairly strange and illogical way) in the details of this one point, and missing the big point that NO ONE IS MAKING THE BIG COST COMPARISONS. NO ONE IS CRUNCHING THE NUMBERS AND LOOKING AT CONSEQUENCES AND ACADEMIC OUTCOMES ON DIFFERENT OPTIONS AND COMPARING THEM. Most importantly, no one at the district level is communicating the consequences of these decisions to the public, whether they are disputable or not.


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Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2010 at 11:04 am

@Neighbor,
This is exactly the kind of unhelpful handwaving I have been talking about. You're looking at one route to a goal, and assuming it's difficult, so you figure there's no way to the goal. I think you're wrong in your assumptions, but I don't think that's the best route to the goal anyway.

Several years ago, before we had recent tragedies to contend with, before we had megaschools with 2300 students (and their attendant problems) on the horizon, the district asked who would go to Cubberley, and at least 15% said they would. That's not no one, that's 600 students minimum who would go without even the promise of a choice program. The optimal school size for high schools is supposed to be 600-1500.

If Cubberley were a choice school, offering even something moderately different and attractive, it would have a waiting list, as all choice programs in this district do (even the ones people predicted wouldn't). The campus is centrally located and would be easily accessible to families from both Gunn and Paly districts.

If it was a moderately attractive choice program, families would go there just because it's closer, and because their kids would have a greater chance of getting classes and extracurricular activities and standing out in the crowd. This is Palo Alto, any new school would have Palo Alto school standards.

If Cubberley were a choice program, there would be no need to redraw boundaries, and with a waiting list, the district would suddenly have a measure of control over populations at all three high schools through the enrollment roller coaster that it can only dream of now.


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Posted by Ada
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm

I completely agree with the observer re willingness of parents to send their kids to Cubberly if it is made into an attractive choice program. Take the popular TEAM program for freshmen as an example - it is "school within school" concept and could fit perfectly. Market the new school as a Leadership school with a wider range of class offering in political science, debates, history, management, business, economics, and you can make it into a highly desired school.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2010 at 12:20 pm

I oppose two-story schools for the reasons mentioned above and because of the elephant in the room - water scarcity.

Many studies have been done. There is the threshold hypothesis, which says that in every society there is a period in which economic growth, conventionally understood or no, brings about an improvement of the quality of life. But only up to a point, the threshold point, beyond which, if there is more growth, quality of life begins to decline. And that is the situation in which we are now.

No economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services. The economy is a subsystem of a larger finite system, the biosphere, hence permanent growth is impossible. And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above life-sustaining ecosystems.

We need to stop increasing our local population, clean up our ground water contamination, realize that clean water is a human right and not force infrastructure growth and increased taxes due to population growth. Water is a problem in California because it hasn't been managed as part of an ecosystem. We need to reject over use of land in Palo Alto.


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Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. The trouble is, our discussion doesn't mean much -- people have to make this view to the board and to the superintendent.

They aren't going to open Cubberley unless the public pushes, or at least pushes to have the issue on the front burner, and they aren't going to have the money to do it unless they take a look at how the money is being spent now in the context of making three optimally sized high schools rather than two megasized ones.

The plans for the mega schools are already being reviewed by the state office of architect, they haven't built yet, but it's getting late to make changes. If people have an opinion, they should make it heard. I'd email Camille Townsend, if anyone would have good ideas for how to craft a choice plan for Cubberley, she would.


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Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Crunch time for the Cubberley site will be January 2014 when the lease between the City and the School District for the 26 acres owned by the School District and leased by the City is up.

Will the many small non-profits who rent a lot of the classrooms gang up on the City and School District to force an extension of the lease? Will the School District decide to take back their former high school for something else? Will the School District at that time decide to sell Cubberley to raise money? Will Hewlett Packard buy it to build their headquarters as almost happened when the City leased it originally? Will the School District sell it for a giant housing development to please ABAG? Or will the City simply negotiate an extension of the lease at a much reduced rate?

2013 is going to be a very interesting year so far as the future of the Cubberley site is concerned.


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Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 25, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Except that the two-story buildings which will make Gunn and Paly megacampuses are slated to go in starting 2011. If we're going to save the millions of dollars and open space we could save by keeping those reasonable sized campuses, someone has to take a strategic look now.


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Posted by a mom
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 26, 2010 at 10:01 am



chances of Cubberly being attractive as a Choice school would be higher if it was a Math & Science school



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Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 26, 2010 at 10:17 am

Maybe so, as far as I know, the board isn't even discussing this. Right now, we are slated to imminently build for making Gunn and Paly megaschools to take all the enrollment, there are no plans involving Cubberley. If having saner-sized schools is important to parents, they need to ask the board to deal with this issue.


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Posted by mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 26, 2010 at 12:18 pm



elementary school parents are the ones that would need to push for something like this, and they're largely oblivious to the issues about High School


doesn't the Superintendent or board think about stuff like this?

everything is - parents need to ask, maybe the idea is to spend all the money now, and the heck with everything else


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Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 26, 2010 at 12:44 pm

I think that is why Chris Kennrick wrote an article like this, to start awareness among elementary school parents. Unless the district starts talking to them, I can just see a huge fight down the road (lower math scores, social problems from enormous schools maybe even more tragedies, acrimonious charter high school debate, etc...) But everyone on the board now will be long gone. Parents have to be willing to get active. Sure, the board should be thinking about stuff like this, and there have been people all along saying they should be reaching out to elementary parents, but it takes the "viral" discussion that the calendar issue started to get them moving.


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Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 26, 2010 at 1:05 pm

The School District is getting $8 Million from the City this year for Cubberley. By 2012 they'll get $10 Million. They're not going to give up that kind of money to take back the site from the City until the lease runs out in January 2014.


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Posted by mom
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 26, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Neighbor,

money, money

you're right = the finances will be talked about and thought about, and it will drive all the short term decisions

where are all the young Googler families whose kids could benefit from a third High School?




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Posted by mom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 26, 2010 at 7:21 pm



imagine the real estate values when Palo Alto has a brand new Math & Science High School?


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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 26, 2010 at 7:36 pm

What a funny thread. What makes you think that the district doesn't consider things like rebuilding/opening Cubberly, building one story, etc.? They aren't perfect, but they certainly aren't dumb, and my sense is that they spend a ton of time working through the options, with the benefit of a career's worth of experience in the field, discussions with colleagues in other districts, knowledge of the real challenges associated with different options.

So rather than spout off here, share your views (and insight if you think you have some) with the board and the superintendent. I've never seen a Super as open to discussion as Skelly, so have at him. He may surprise you.


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Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2010 at 8:04 pm

@Me Too
You wrote: "What makes you think that the district doesn't consider things like rebuilding/opening Cubberly, building one story, etc.?"

Why do you think I've taken the moniker "observer"? I never would have believed it otherwise, either.

Skelley came into this district, brand new, publicly stating we needed two-story buildings at Gunn, publicly stating he wasn't going to consider opening Cubberley because he didn't want to redraw boundaries.

In a televised meeting a district administrator deflected suggestions about Cubberley by claiming the district had looked at the issue with the high school task force and they decided not to open, knowing full well that the high school task force was done before the enrollment crisis, before the recession (and drop in prices), before Measure A, before the plans for Gunn and Paly, and concluded they had no expertise to decide the question and wanted to look at curriculum instead.

If you think anyone has ever done a legitimate comparison of costs and outcomes between building megaschools at Gunn and Paly versus reopening Cubberley, you tell me where I can find it. If you think the board has put any resources into involving elementary parents in the decisions about the high schools, into educating them about the potential implications of enormous schools, you tell me where I can find that. If you think the board or Skelley has done the due diligence you suggest they should have done -- that I am saying they should be doing -- you provide some evidence of it. Because what I have seen is poor planning, illogical decisionmaking, and no communication with the public about the very major consequences of these decisions.

Because I have been watching, unlike you, I am not just spouting off from a "sense" of what I think just because I think Skelley is a nice guy.


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Posted by mom
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 28, 2010 at 8:04 pm


Me Too,

funny thread, maybe as funny as how the district is handling a calendar change?

nobody is perfect, but if the district is doing their homework on this one, why is not more public?


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Posted by observer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2010 at 8:13 pm

mom,
Actually, I'd say the district is paying way more attention to the calendar issue, because they're getting more pushback from the public. The public won't be in the pushback stage over the high schools until something bad happens, when it's way, way too late to change.

I've been watching. The district isn't doing their homework. And where they think they are, they're relying on people with conflicts of interest, or handwaving without doing the hard analysis. They are only too glad not to talk to the public about this, because it only invites change and the need to think -- why do that when the problems will be someone else's down the line?


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

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