As with many Palo Alto issues, the current debate over whether the City of Palo Alto should enter into negotiations to sell part of the Cubberley Community Center to Foothill College is like a Rubik's Cube. Aligning all the well-intentioned stakeholders may be practically impossible, especially given the large number of uncertainties.
The complexity of the factors at play are staggering.
It begins with the fact that 8 of the 35 acres at the former Cubberley High School site at 4000 Middlefield Road are owned by the City of Palo Alto and the remaining 27 acres are owned by the Palo Alto Unified School District. This odd configuration stems from the city leasing the entire 35 acres from the district in 1989 but then acquiring ownership of 8 acres when a new middle school was needed and the city swapped the Terman Middle School site (which it owned) for the space at Cubberley.
The 8 acres are at the north end of the site and include most of the classrooms, two small parking lots and six tennis courts. The 27 acres owned by the school district consist of a few classrooms, the theater, gyms, multi-purpose rooms, two large parking lots and all the playing fields.
Foothill College currently leases about 40,000 square feet of space at Cubberley, roughly half of it from the city and half from the school district. The balance of the space is occupied by artists, two private schools, some city staff, nonprofit organizations and a few businesses. The city receives about $2.5 million a year in rent (at well below market rates) and its cost of operating the facility are roughly the same.
The 1989 lease deal came at a time when the school district was facing big financial challenges and, together with the city, orchestrated a complex deal that included a 35-year lease of Cubberley, an agreement whereby the school district pledged not to sell off its unneeded school sites and to provide space for after-school child care at all elementary sites.
It was deemed a "win-win" because it gave the city a community center in south Palo Alto, retained school sites for possible future use, and provided much-needed child care. But it came with a huge price tag, with annual payments that have now grown to more than $7 million. How did the city come up with the money to support this deal? By passing a Utility User's Tax that now generates more than $11 million a year from local residents and businesses.
Meanwhile, finances aside, there is concern over the growing enrollment at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, the steady increases in elementary school enrollment and the prospect of additional students due to new housing development.
And in the midst of this, along comes Foothill College, sitting on millions of dollars in voter-approved bond money for capital projects that it would like to invest in a new "education center" in either Palo Alto, Mountain View or Sunnyvale. For the third time in the last four years it is eyeing the 8-acre site at Cubberley.
In the perfect world there would be a wonderful and innovative collaboration between the Palo Alto school district and Foothill College, facilitated by the city, in which Cubberley would be transformed into a unique campus functioning both as a high school and a community college, serving both teens and adults. It is that dream that led six City Council members Monday night to vote in support of sending a letter of interest to Foothill, despite an overwhelming negative response from the public.
At stake, one can assume, is Foothill's presence in Palo Alto. If it can't secure the space it wants here, it will probably go elsewhere.
For both the Palo Alto council and the school board, however, there is more at stake than Foothill's local campus. While the dream of an integrated education facility is one we share, it is even more important that policymakers responsibly plan for the long-term needs of our local school district, including the possible need for a third high school.
The city could proceed with talks with Foothill and put the burden on the school district to exercise its right of first refusal, meaning it would have to step in front of Foothill and buy back the 8 acres. But that kind of jockeying between public agencies is not in the spirit of cooperation that this community expects.
Cubberley is in disrepair, and neither the city nor the school district has a plan for dealing with it. That neglectful stewardship is shameful and is what makes the Foothill offer tempting. If further talks, ideally in public rather than in secret, can produce creative development ideas that preserve the ability for Cubberley to house a high school in the future, then it may be worth the effort.
Otherwise we have no choice but to let Foothill go, find replacement tenants, and begin a discussion on how to maximize the value of Cubberley to the community over the long-term.