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.