There are endless possibilities for how the 35-acre former Cubberley High School site on Middlefield Road in south Palo Alto could be used to meet the future needs of the school district and broader community.
City Council member Gail Price started the discussion two weeks ago in an opinion piece published in the Weekly by suggesting that the city use the eight acres it owns at the complex for a new public safety building.
Price, a former member of the Palo Alto school board, said such a project could be combined with a middle or high school that increasingly appears needed as elementary school enrollment continues to rise in the school district.
Because of the location of the city-owned eight-acre parcel at Cubberley, Price's proposal to locate a new public safety building there is probably only viable if part of a major redesign of the entire facility.
But regardless of what ideas might ultimately prevail, there should be a sense of urgency by both the city and school district for addressing the future of the Cubberley site.
The school district leases the 27 acres at Cubberley that it owns to the city of Palo Alto under a complex agreement that will come up for renewal at the end of 2014, with a notification date of Dec. 31, 2013.
The 1989 lease was a financial lifeline to the school district at a desperate time. The city agreed to lease Cubberley and other surplus school sites to keep them from being sold off and to provide financial support to the schools. Voters approved a five percent utility users tax primarily to fund this lease scheme.
Annual lease payments today total a whopping $4.48 million for the 27 acres the city owns at Cubberley plus $1.7 million for a covenant not to develop what were then surplus school sites.
The city receives some money from subleasing space at Cubberley to community groups and organizations, but only nets about $300,000 after expenses, not including the lease payments to the school district. So the arrangement results in a shift of about $6 million a year from the city to the school district.
Times and circumstances have changed considerably over the last 25 years, and it is clear that the city cannot be expected to continue this lopsided arrangement given its own financial challenges.
The city's "blue ribbon" citizens commission on infrastructure courageously decided to wade into the Cubberley issue in a draft "working paper" published a month ago, and correctly concluded that the time has come for the school district to plan for a smooth transition from its dependence on these lease payments beginning in 2015.
Under today's circumstances, it no longer makes sense for the city to provide a direct $6 million annual subsidy to the school district. There are no longer unused school sites needing to be preserved for future use and the district's financial resources have significantly stabilized.
As Councilmember Price has suggested, that does not mean that the school district and the city should go their separate ways in addressing the Cubberley site. There is no reason to think that a win-win solution is not possible, where the school district and the city's need for facilities are met through careful planning and negotiation, and where the financial terms are within the means of both entities.
But work must begin immediately, and the school district must start by figuring out what it needs to serve the future enrollment of students. With the impending possible loss of $6 million a year in revenue beginning in 2015, the school district should have every incentive to work with the city to develop an exciting plan for the Cubberley site serving 21st century needs of the community.
We urge the school board and the city council to form a joint committee to begin this work, and to set a firm timeline that ensures the public that a viable plan is complete by the end of 2013.