School district closes first land buy in decades

HP co-founder David Packard guided city's last era of school building

The Palo Alto school district Tuesday completed its purchase of 2.6 acres of land at 525 San Antonio Road -- the first land acquisition for Palo Alto schools in a half century.

Officials have yet to specify a use for the former Peninsula Day Care parcel, but some have suggested it's a prime spot for a new elementary school to accommodate unexpectedly high elementary-age growth in the southern part of town.

"This is a big deal," school board President Melissa Baten Caswell said of the land deal.

"It's been a long time since the Palo Alto Unified School District moved forward on acquiring any property, so this is big news."

Baby Boomers were in diapers the last time Palo Alto schools were building new campuses.

HP co-founder David Packard was an elected member of the Palo Alto Board of Education. While running his startup company, Packard also guided widespread construction of elementary schools in south Palo Alto during his school board tenure from 1947 to 1956.

"We did fairly well in getting our schools set up," he recalled in a 1991 interview with the Peninsula Times-Tribune newspaper.

Historical documents -- mostly in the form of newspaper clips from the old Palo Alto Times -- were provided to the Weekly by Bob French, a retired English teacher and active substitute who is unofficial historian for the Palo Alto school district.

"There was obviously going to be an increase in school population," Packard said of his years on the school board.

"All you needed to do was find out how many babies were born each year and put some factor in to account for the influx, and you'd know how many kids you were going to have in school in any grade in the following years," he said.

"A little third-grade arithmetic was all it took."

Compared to the nearly $3.3-million-per-acre price of the school district's new San Antonio acquisition, land was a bargain in the first half of the 20th century. Open space was abundant in Palo Alto, and the district acquired property in every decade from the 1920s to the 1950s at prices ranging from $1,100 to $3,800 per acre.

In 1925, the school district paid $1,100 an acre for land on Middlefield Road across from what is now the Midtown Safeway. The 6.5-acre parcel was dedicated in 1947 as "South Palo Alto School" and later was renamed Herbert Hoover Elementary School before being closed and sold off for housing.

In 1935, 16 acres near Middlefield and Santa Rita Avenue were acquired for $14,000 for what was to become Jordan Junior High School. Eight acres were later added to the parcel and, in 1936, voters by a six-to-one margin approved a $360,000 bond to build the school named for Stanford University's first president, David Starr Jordan.

In 1940, the school district agreed to pay $1,230 an acre for dairy land on Barron Avenue that is now Barron Park Elementary School.

The acquisition for Cubberley High School came in 1952 as a result of a condemnation suit filed by the school board, according to an Oct. 17, 1952, article in the Palo Alto Times.

A Santa Clara County Superior Court judge ruled the district must pay $134,596 -- about $3,800 an acre -- for the 35.4-acre site near Middlefield and Charleston roads.

Cubberley opened in 1956 as Palo Alto's second high school and Gunn, the third high school, opened in 1964.

Packard and others advocated a standard design for classrooms and elementary schools, making it "possible for us to meet the classroom needs and keep the system within a budget," he said.

After nine years on the school board, Packard announced his resignation in 1956 -- the year before Hewlett-Packard Company went public -- saying he was "too pressed for time to continue."

At the height of Baby Boom enrollment in 1967, the school district had a headcount of 15,575 students with 22 elementary schools, three high schools and three junior high schools.

As enrollment declined through the 1970s and '80s before hitting a low of 7,500 in 1989, the district closed schools and sold off many acres for housing.

Cubberley closed in 1979.

In February 1987, the school board voted to convert Gunn into the district's sole middle school, with a plan to leave Paly the community's single high school. The contentious vote prompted an electoral revolt later that year, and a new school board majority reversed the decision as soon as members were sworn in.

Enrollment has been climbing since 1989, and this fall stands at 12,286, with 12 elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools.

Without outlining specifics, the school board has asserted the district will need to take back the Cubberley campus, perhaps in stages, over the next decade or so. Currently the district earns more than $7 million a year by leasing the old high school campus to the City of Palo Alto for use as a community center.

That lease expires in 2014, and both bodies are launching public discussions on the future of the 35-acre campus.

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Like this comment
Posted by William
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 3, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Why is the District spending more than $8 million for this site when they own the huge Cubberley site immediately adjacent? No wonder the District is having money problems.

And wasn't this the site that just got approval for a 10-unit residential subdivision? I'd have thought that would be more newsworthy than what Packard did in the 50's. Way to stay on the ball, Palo Alto Online.

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 3, 2011 at 4:10 pm

This is a very good decision by our school board. I believe that it was a mistake to sell off so much school site lands in the past.

The Cubberly site was saved, in the past past, by people like Mike Cobb (thanks, Mike!), who understood how valuable such sites are to our community and our schools. If we lwt this current site get away from us, it would be a VERY expensive mistake.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Good news on the purchase and a very nice article with lots of historical facts. Some I knew, but some was completely new to me. Thank you.

Like this comment
Posted by paloaltotreewatch
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Nov 3, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Don't forget how the city council still went ahead and approved the contingent housing plans.
This council - all about buildout and expansion of housing but doesn't care about new infrastructure or that we now all sit in traffic from 5-7pm.
And they could stood with solidarity with PAUSD and not approved the contingent plan.
But no.

Like this comment
Posted by Response to paloaltotreewatch
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2011 at 4:30 am

The Council rejected even higher density housing. The land is zoned for single family housing, so the Council did not have a basis for rejecting that housing plan.

Also Terman was reopened when the sale of that site to the City of Palo Alto was almost completed. Stanford University gave the money for renovating that side to the School District as part of the mitigation for the new housing it was building along Sand Hill Road and elsewhere. But the land for the Terman site came from swapping land at Cubberley to the City.

The Utility Users tax we pay was intended to pay for leasing Cubberley so the School District would not sell it (and also to pay for sidewalk repair, but that's another story). That provided valuable revenue for the School District, which was hurting from reduced student population and the effects of Proposition 13. In this case, the City showed more foresight, as the School District was busy closing nearly half the elementary schools (there once were 24) and selling off most of those sites for housing.

Like this comment
Posted by PA resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2011 at 10:08 am

I'm mystified by this purchase, when the district convinced the city not to let Foothill have the 8 acres the city owns at Cubberley, yet still express no intention of buying back that 8 acres, even though the city has offered it, cheap.

Like this comment
Posted by Edward Perez
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 4, 2011 at 11:20 am

Whew! I'm glad the day care center will become a school and not housing ... or am i? If it were housing that would mean perhaps 20 new cars rolling in and out of there every morning and evening. As a school, with lets say 500 students, that is 500 cars rolling in and out of there every morning and evening. Across the street is some sort of private campus where the mothers and fathers of the best and the brightest block traffic on an already overcrowded San Antonio Road because the parents of the best and the brightest are bright enough to realize that the back end of their Escalade is sticking out into traffic.

If the Cubberly and pre-school sites are indeed reverted back to school use, you think San Antonio/Middlefield is a mess now? Just wait. Just wait till the old Sears land comes on-line with all its housing and just wait till the renovations on the other end of San Antonio, near 101 come online. The city council is deciding how to increase business (which means more cars) in that area as well.

Middlefield Road should be turned into a Boulevard with medians down the center and one lane of traffic going each way. This would encourage people to use 101 and Alma instead. Challenger school is on Middlefield and Charleston as are several developmentally disabled schools not to mention church row.

This is going to become a madhouse of traffic.

PS: What about that empty parcel just sound of San Antonio on Middlefield next to the car dealership? What if that becomes housing. More cars.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2011 at 11:28 am


A good place to reduce lanes would be on Middlefield near Cubberley but not in Midtown.

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

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