With the fate of the Cubberley Community Center at stake, Palo Alto school board members laid their cards on the table, saying future Palo Altans will need the entire 35 acres of the former high school for K-12 education.
The assertion by the school board -- in a formal, unanimous vote -- came Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Palo Alto City Council agreed to consider the possible sale of 8 city-owned acres of the dilapidated Cubberley site to the Foothll-De Anza Community College District. The school district owns the remaining 27 acres of Cubberley.
School board members indicated they oppose a sale to Foothill and want to work with the council to "define and address" the joint city-school interest in the property.
With school headcount quickly rising again, Cubberley could be needed for a fourth middle school as early as 2015 and for a third comprehensive high school by 2021, school board members said. Until now, they had been reticent about when and how they might use the acreage at 4000 Middlefield Road.
Cubberley operated as a comprehensive high school from 1955 to 1979, when it was closed due to declining enrollment. Following that, it was leased to the city, which has operated it as a community center. The city took ownership of 8 acres at Cubberley in 2001 in exchange for returning the Terman campus to the school district when it was needed as a third middle school.
Foothill, which currently serves up to 4,000 students in five leased Cubberley buildings, is looking to purchase and upgrade part of the former high school campus to create a "state-of-the-art educational center." Foothill is also considering building its center in Mountain View or Sunnyvale.
School board members said they were acting on behalf of "future Palo Alto residents and school trustees" to preserve the Cubberley option for K-12 growth.
Admitting they "could have done a better job" of planning, board members said they now believe working with the city "will produce effective and mutually beneficial decisions for the residents we serve."
"A deadline of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, much as I love them, should not be framing or driving this decision," board member Barb Mitchell said.
"If the city or school district loses control over this property, it's a forever decision. We'll never have the choice to change our minds."
Palo Alto's district-wide enrollment, at 12,024 last fall, has been on a steady upward trajectory since hitting a post-Baby Boom nadir of 7,452 in 1989.
Elementary enrollment in particular has grown quickly in recent years, and officials are scrambling to add up to 40 K-5 classrooms across the district.
At its historic high in 1968 when Palo Alto had three high schools and more than 20 elementary schools enrollment reached 15,575. Currently, there are two high schools, three middle schools and 12 elementary campuses.
Two former mayors Mike Cobb and Lanie Wheeler and two former school board presidents Diane Reklis and Carolyn Tucher pleaded with the school board Tuesday to block sale of the 8 acres.
Another former school board president, Susie Richardson, advocated striking a creative deal with Foothill as "a springboard to the high school of the future."
While board members said they support technology-based innovations in education, they said they had difficulty envisioning a feasible space-sharing arrangement with Foothill.
"There's likely to be fundamental change in how education is delivered in the future, but the issue we have is one of time," board member Dana Tom said. "I'm not willing to bet the farm on the nature of the change, or when that change will take place."
Noting the school district, the city and Foothill "all have some overlap in what they want," Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said nonetheless she doubts "the site is big enough to give everybody part of the sweet spot."
Caswell indicated the district "does not have additional money floating around" to buy the 8 acres, adding that she "can guess" but does not really know the city's financial constraints and therefore would like to work together.
In a presentation to the City Council Monday, City Manager Jim Keene said capital improvements and annual maintenance at Cubberley is projected at $10.2 million from 2012 to 2016.
The city currently pays the school district $4.48 million a year to lease Cubberley, with that lease expiring in 2014.
In addition, the city pays the district $1.7 million a year as part of a "covenant" under which the district agreed not to sell off any more school sites for private development. It pays the district another $600,000 annually in exchange for land at all 12 elementary schools that provide space for after-school child care, which is managed by the nonprofit Palo Alto Community Child Care. It also pays for utilities on the site.
The payments are roughly equivalent to the amount the city raises through the utility-users tax, though not a direct payment from that account. The city-school cooperation on Cubberley arose after passage of the 1978 tax-cutting initiative Proposition 13, when community leaders were concerned that financial losses could threaten the schools.