Building a new middle school or placing sixth-graders back in elementary schools were among the ideas tossed out Tuesday (Jan. 10) as the Board of Education wrestled with Palo Alto enrollment predictions.
In a three-hour session with a consulting demographer, board members parsed the data but -- because of unusually variable enrollments in recent years -- concluded it is hardly a foolproof guide for major construction decisions that are looming.
Those decisions include where to build desk space for rising elementary enrollment and what to do when middle school enrollment exceeds current capacity -- expected soon. Other decisions include what to do with the old Garland School campus, whose lease with a private school expires in two years.
"I don't think we can count on the data to bail us out and make us feel good," board Vice President Dana Tom said.
"It's more of a guess than we would like."
The new projections -- based on trend analysis from the past four years -- predict a 4.4 percent decline in the next five years in enrollment in "north cluster" elementary schools -- Addison, Duveneck and Walter Hays.
They predict 7.5 percent growth in the same period for the "south cluster" -- El Carmelo, Palo Verde and Fairmeadow.
And they predict a 17.4 percent growth in the "west cluster" -- Barron Park, Juana Briones, Escondido and Nixon.
But board members worried that some of the surprising "west cluster" growth reflected one-time bumps from housing development projects completed in the past four years.
And they worried that other, hard-to-read trends were not captured in the projections.
"If aging parents start selling their homes there could be a generational shift that could affect our assumptions going forward," Tom said.
"If there's an area of town where we have a lot of people over 75 or 80, we should know that," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
"Because if these houses turn over -- even if they just become rentals -- our history is that young families move in, and I'd hate for us to be surprised by that."
Board member Barb Mitchell said the infrastructure decisions pressing the board are on a "grander scale" than the data in the projections.
"We have important decisions to make on how we're going to use Garland, where to put the next new classrooms at the elementary level and where we're going to put that middle school," she said.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said the district needs to make decisions soon on where to add new capacity at the elementary and middle school levels.
"There are lots of options. The two I can think of is to add a fourth middle school, or moving some sixth graders to elementary schools and building more capacity there."
Capacity in the district's three middle schools are 1,100 each for Jordan and Jane Lathrop Stanford (JLS), and 700 for Terman. Current enrollment is 1,015 at Jordan, 1,001 at JLS and 663 at Terman.
"As I look, I see more enrollment than we have capacity for at middle school, but not at this point enough to justify a fourth middle school," Skelly said.
He alluded to history as a warning for the board to proceed cautiously and maintain maximum flexibility. He referred to a period of declining enrollment in the 1980s when former boards voted to close schools and sell the properties to housing developers.
"I think people would like us to make lots of hard decisions about things," he said.
"That's what folks did 25 years ago -- in terms of 'this trend is going to go down' -- and they were wrong. We could make the same assumption that the trend will go up, and we could be wrong.
"To me what we need to do is plan carefully and keep the most number of options we can."
Skelly said he will return to the board in February with options and recommendations on how to proceed.