Former official urges schools to 'bank land'

Low-growth projections made in the 1980s 'proved very wrong,' former board chair says

Amid concerns about fast-growing elementary school enrollment, a former Palo Alto school board chairwoman has called on the city and the Palo Alto school district to "bank land" for future campuses.

Carolyn Tucher, who served on the school board during a period of declining enrollment and school closures in the 1980s, said projections about future growth made at that time "have already been proved very wrong."

Tucher's passionate remarks came Wednesday morning (Feb. 16) in a meeting of the City-School Liaison Committee, comprised of City Council members Nancy Shepherd and Yiaway Yeh and school board members Barbara Klausner and Dana Tom.

During Tucher's board tenure from 1981 to 1989, enrollment was plummeting and the community endured the painful process of closing neighborhood campuses.

In a controversial 1987 vote, the board backed a plan to convert Gunn High School to the district's sole middle school and keep Palo Alto High School as the only high school -- prompting a bitter 1988 school board election and reversal of the plan.

The decisions to close schools and sell land at the time were made by the board, but were based on demographic projections that were backed by "engaged parents," consultants and scholars at the University of California at Berkeley, Tucher said.

While short-term projections of enrollment decline through the 1980s proved accurate, long-term assumptions turned out to be way off, she said.

"Nobody foresaw the Silicon Valley phenomenon that totally changed our (school) population growth," Tucher said.

"While projections are useful, the imponderables are so great."

Palo Alto school enrollment hit its historic peak at the crest of the Baby Boom in 1967-68, with three high schools, 22 elementary schools and 15,575 students.

By 1989-90, enrollment had plummeted to 7,452. Schools had been closed, and many campuses -- including Ortega and Crescent Park -- had been sold to housing developers.

The district currently operates 12 elementary schools, three middle schools and two comprehensive high schools.

Last fall, Palo Alto school enrollment extended a 20-year upward trajectory, coming in at 12,024.

Officials noted particularly strong growth in kindergarten and other elementary grades.

Following the campus closures in the 1980s, Tucher said headcount at Addison School was 160. Last fall, Addison welcomed 456 students.

"I urge the City Council and the school board to work together to land bank," she said.

"Believe it or not, we thought we land banked in the '80s -- we had more than one elementary campus in each part of town, we had Terman (then closed and leased) and we had Cubberley (also closed and leased).

"Once land is broken up for homes, there's no going back. There's no guarantee enrollment will continue to rise, but it certainly could.

"Pressures on Palo Alto continue to grow."

Tucher urged the council and school board to identify parcels of "high interest" and "watch properties before they come on the market."

The school board has scheduled a March 8 study session to discuss enrollment projections and facilities needs. Assistant City Manager Steve Emslie told Klausner and Tom he would provide a city map highlighting parcels zoned for "public facilities"for reference at the session.

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Like this comment
Posted by Teacher
a resident of another community
on Feb 17, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Yes, save the school district-owned property. As long as the City of Palo Alto continues to allow high-density residential contruction, the school enrollments will increase.

The school board should meet with the City & Planning Dept. to see what's in the mix for future development. Even small developments downtown or in College Terrace have impact, to say nothing of the monstrosity where Ricky's was. Palo Alto wants the developer fees & city transfer taxes from these homes. How much of that money goes to the schools which must absorb increased enrollment?

Like this comment
Posted by PAUSD Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 17, 2011 at 2:54 pm

I think it is very important for the school district to plan for the future WITH the city. They are using the city to bankroll the preservation of sites (Ventura, Cubberley) that they may want to use in the future, but they keep any plans for the future very close to their chests, preventing the city from planning forward with regard to future use or investment in these facilities.

Start planning, PAUSD, please. Be a PARTNER with the city as they have been very generous with the school district. People will support the district to a point, but when district behavior lacks transparency...when it affects city budgets (and taxpayers' pockets irresponsibly) there likely will be political backlash. Protect your interests by partnering considerately or you will force the city to plan forward WITHOUT you.

No creative collaborative solution will come if involved partners are not engaged in a problem-solving process. Put your cards on the table so everyone can plan to use our community's limited resources thoughtfully.

Please work together.

Like this comment
Posted by another parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2011 at 12:07 am

Thank you, PAUSD, you said exactly what was on my mind!

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2011 at 8:45 am

Yes, it should be a partnership, but it works both ways.

The City is not allowed to take into account the schools when it makes its decisions on housing. That is like putting the cart before the horse.

Since each new development pays school impact fees, what are these fees being used for? Portables?

Like this comment
Posted by PAUSD Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 19, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Approvals for housing projects are completely and exhaustively studied in public forums. The city and PAUSD regularly discuss projected housing development and enrollment at monthly City School Liaison Committee meetings.

If anyone in this community is surprised by a housing approval, they just aren't paying attention. The process often takes years of community meetings and public hearings that are all publicly noticed. This information is easily available to anyone who wants it.

Like this comment
Posted by laura
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Every patch of vacant land now has condos on it. Schools are bursting at the seams, classes are overcrowded. Poor planning for the future of our schools is the reason. This will continue as shown by the large kindergarten enrollment. Private schools are not an option for every family - just living in Palo Alto is expensive enough!! What will the school board/city leaders do about this situation?????

Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Feb 19, 2011 at 7:56 pm

I hate to say we told you so, but in the 80's many of us parents tried to tell the school board that demographic changes were cyclical. We predicted that the school population decline would eventually turn around and begged them not to sell off school property.

Like this comment
Posted by South PA Neighbor
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Feb 20, 2011 at 2:37 am

I agree with PAUSD parent, it's time the School District revealed their plans for housing it's growing school population.

Right now the School District has access to four previously used elementary schools: Garland and Fremont Hills presently leased to private schools, Ventura owned by the City but could be bought back, and Greendell adjacent to Cubberley.

The School District owns over 30 acres at the Cubberley site and even though the City owns a portion of that site which they would like to sell to Foothill College, the School District has first choice to buy it back from the City. But, the City needs to make a decision neither they nor Foothill can wait forever. It's time the School District revealed their plans for expansion and be prepared to pay for land they previously sold to the City.

One of the big problems with opening a new elementary school is that none of the parents of the present school population want their child to be the ones transferred to a new school. If a new elementary school is opened there will have to be reassignments throughout the area. The School District found this out when they planned to re-open Garland, nobody was willing to have their child be the one who had to cross either Embarcadero or Oregon to attend the new school. Therefore, it's just as easy for the School District to continue to add portables to existing schools.

I disagree with Carolyn Tucker, since the School District and/or the City owns most of the spare land in the City, the School District does not need to buy any spare land unless it's presently owned by the City. But, we need a plan for the future before any land is bought or sold.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 20, 2011 at 8:36 am

The reason PAUSD has not made its future plans for growth made known is because they have no plans.

The BoE and even Skelly all know that before the big problem comes about, they will all be long gone from their present positions so it won't be their problem.

Cubberley is an option for high school. Yes, it will cost a lot to do so, but the money and preparations should be discussed now. All these new developments all over the city which are bringing in new housing to bring in new schools should be paying a huge school impact fee and this is the money that should be used for future school developments. I see nothing that tells me where this money is going.

Yes, there are also options for elementary schools. If Greendell were reopened, there would be little outcry from local parents at being disturbed from their present elementary schools because crossing Middlefield is not the same as crossing an Expressway. Greendell is situated in the right place to stem the growing school populations, Garland wasn't.

The big problem is the middle schools. Terman is not able to grow any bigger because it is a small campus. JLS and Jordan are growing, portable by portable, but traffic problems - particularly for JLS, as well as the fact that the schools are both about 1,000 students are turning these schools into mega schools. It will soon be the case that Terman will have the advantage of size over the other two schools which will make it more desirable alone.

As more and more housing is being built in Palo Alto, it is pretty evident that PAUSD is being slack in looking forward. They know the City is not going to consider schools when moving forward with their housing goals. They know that they are basically on their own, but they are doing nothing to prepare.

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

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