We had high hopes in November, 2011 when the Palo Alto City Council adopted an ambitious work plan aimed at determining a thoughtful path forward for the use and related financing for the 35-acre former Cubberley High School site.
The idea was to form several committees, including a large community advisory committee, and work jointly with the school district to create a vision of how the city and schools might use and finance this valuable acreage to serve their respective future needs.
The effort was prompted by the upcoming expiration, at the end of 2014, of a 25-year lease between the school district and the city that has helped keep the schools financially stable during some very tough times.
Currently, the city pays the school district over $7 million a year for the aging facility, assumes all the costs of maintenance and must manage a rental program that generates barely enough revenue to just cover the maintenance expenses. The loss of Foothill College as a major tenant now creates new risks and challenges.
At a time of financial crisis for the schools, it was a generous and appropriate offering by the city, and was unofficially funded by voter approval of a utility users tax. But financial conditions have now changed dramatically, and this deal no longer makes much sense, except to the school district, which would love to avoid having to wean itself from this gift of $7 million a year.
Unfortunately, the ambitions for what could have been accomplished over the last 18 months have slowly and quietly diminished, to the point where the just-released report of the hard-working and well-meaning citizens group leaves us virtually in the same place as when the process began.
The report proposes that the city and the district renew the current lease at unspecified terms, write a joint-use plan over the next seven years that could encompass community uses as well as make room for a third public high school for Palo Alto that might not be needed for 20 or more years.
The committee was split on whether the two parties should sign a five-year or 10-year agreement, with those favoring five years believing the shorter term would signal to the district that it should not depend on this subsidy continuing forever.
In essence, the school district's consistent position has been that because it thinks that some day it may need the Cubberley site for a school, it wants the city to continue renting and managing the property at a substantial loss.
And if the city decides that this is no longer a viable use of $7 million a year, given the school district's current budget surpluses and healthy financial outlook?
Some have threatened to put a repeal of the utility users tax on the ballot if the city doesn't choose to continue the Cubberley lease.
Such talk is insulting to Palo Alto residents, who have generously supported the schools through repeated bond measures, donations and ongoing volunteer activities. It was due to this generosity that the school district has received well over a hundred million dollars over the last 25 years from city funds to supplement their regular revenues.
With the citizens committee's report, which contains very helpful background and data, particularly on how joint-use sites can be successful, now complete, the City Council will begin sorting out how to proceed with the potential renewal and renegotiation of the lease.
With a good starting point, city and school district staff and their elected leaders need to begin serious discussions about how to begin winding down this long outdated lease arrangement.
No one wants to impose a sudden financial hardship or management burden on the school district, but it is time to plan a steady reduction in the cost of this lease. If a complete renegotiation of the lease isn't possible between now and the end of the year, city officials should consider offering only annual extensions. One option is for the school district to manage some or all of the property itself, as it does other surplus sites, and find appropriate tenants. The city has spared them this responsibility for 25 years, but we question why the city should continue to be managing the school district's property in today's fiscal environment.
The city now has its own severe financial pressures, and many important alternative uses for the money that has been flowing to the school district.
The Cubberley advisory committee has done good and valuable work, even while failing to reach recommendations on the details of a new lease arrangement between the city and school district.
"Kicking the can down the road (by renewing the lease with no long-term plan) is clearly not a solution," the committee said.