Plans for new elementary school put on hold

Board cites slowed enrollment growth, need for input from new superintendent

For the third time in five years, the Palo Alto Board of Education has hit the pause button on plans to open a new elementary school, citing enrollment growth that was slower than expected.

A majority of board members Tuesday signaled agreement with Superintendent Kevin Skelly's recommendation to drop a timeline that would have had them decide on location of a 13th elementary school by this spring, and to let Skelly's replacement take a fresh look at the issue next year.

Board members agreed to disband a committee that was pondering programming and location of a new school and to reopen talks to extend the leases of two independent schools now renting space from the district at 870 N. California Ave. (Stratford School) and 525 San Antonio Road (Athena Academy).

California's 2010 Kindergarten Readiness Act – which phased in a requirement that children entering kindergarten must be 5 years old by Sept. 1 instead of Dec. 2 – has suppressed kindergarten enrollment for the past two years, contributing to the slowed enrollment growth.

"When the three small kindergarten classes move through the system there will be small classes at each level, so we'll have a number of years where we'll have less kids flowing through all the grades," said board Vice-President Melissa Baten Caswell.

"Given the costs of opening a new elementary school – both construction and operating – fiscally this is the right decision."

Board member Dana Tom agreed.

"It doesn't make sense to open a new school earlier than you need it, like you wouldn't buy a new computer until you need it," he said. "You'll make a better decision closer to when you need it and also not incur those costs."

Even board President Barb Mitchell, perhaps the strongest voice on the board in favor of committing funds to prepare for enrollment growth, supported delaying the process.

"I still am in favor of a 13th elementary school ... but the new superintendent really needs to be involved in this process," she said.

Board member Camille Townsend -- a strong backer of innovative programming in the district, such as the Mandarin Immersion Program -- said taking an additional year would provide more time for officials to ponder creative programming ideas for a new campus.

A year ago, the Board of Education made a similar decision to defer a decision on a new elementary school after members of a parent and staff "Elementary Site Selection Advisory Committee" had met for three months to consider the options.

In 2009, the board approved schematic architectural designs for a $15.5 million renovation of the Garland School campus at 870 N. California Ave. in preparation for a 2012 re-opening.

But just six weeks later, citing stalled enrollment growth and a $3 million "structural deficit" for 2009-2010, the board voted to retreat from that plan.

District wide, enrollment has been on an upward trajectory for more than two decades after falling to a post-Baby Boom low of 7,500 in 1989.

Enrollment today stands at 12,500, but the pace of growth has slowed. Early registration for next fall's kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes is 39 students lower than last year's, officials recently reported.


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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2014 at 9:53 am

This is ridiculous. We needed it five years ago. The AAAG worked for months and came to the conclusion that it was necessary. Just because more portables have been put into campuses that were designed for 350 kids and exempted caps that had been established it does not mean that our schools are not overcrowded now.

We buy a computer when we need it because we can buy a computer and take it home and use it straight away. We can't do that with a school. It takes at least 3 - 5 years to get a school up and running.

Skelly is wrong here. Our elementary schools are no longer the pleasant neighborhood schools that they should be. They contain students from all over town who have been squeezed in where they can. The traffic around our elementary schools is because so many kids live outside the school boundaries. We have no efficient traffic plan to get students to school apart from being driven across town by parents.

And, did the school board not read about all the new housing that the new housing committee is reviewing. San Antonio Road will have new housing. Frys will have new housing. These developments will have school children. And they will have to be squeezed into overcrowded schools.

This is preposterous.

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Posted by Far from the top
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 12, 2014 at 11:07 am

Plus one to everything the prior poster said. Is the school board really so short sighted or is something else going on?

Just because each kid has a chair does not mean they are each being well served. Far from it. I speak with so many parents who stretched to pay the real estate premium to live here and are sorely disappointed in quality of PAUSD. These are people quite familiar with very well regarded schools in other states - public and private. PAUSD really is not all that it claims. Huge let down at the elementary level.

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Posted by Curious
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 12, 2014 at 12:03 pm

@Far From - given your knowledge, could you share which districts you think are truly the cream of the crop? While I'm sure there are people who are disappointed in PAUSD, I'm not sure what exactly they are looking for and what they think is missing. It may be that people have different views of what's important.

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 12, 2014 at 1:06 pm

The decision to delay another school is simple. $$$. It costs a lot more to open a school than to simply add kids to an existing site. Add to that the rental $$$ the District gets from Stratford, Pinewood, Cubberly, etc. and it comes down to finances.

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Posted by Julian
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 12, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Another +1 to @Resident's posting three hours ago. I'll state from personal experience that Palo Verde was overcrowded years ago.

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Posted by Erin Tuomy Mershon
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 12, 2014 at 3:15 pm

I completely agree with Resident said in the first comment. Unfortunately, this has nothing to do with money or a new superintendent search, and everything to do with this board not having enough of a backbone to make a decision about anything.

An interesting quote from an article from 1997:

"The school board also voted on plans for a possible 13th elementary school. The board voted to set up a "trigger" to start the planning process based on the student enrollment, or if additional grades are added to the state class-size reduction program.

"You have to have something like this so you can make a decision," Tuomy said. "Otherwise you go back over this every year. We can't do that because we have Building For Excellence to plan for."

If enrollment is projected to be on high side--an increase of 150 students at the elementary level--plans will be made to move Ohlone to the Garland site by the beginning of the second semester in 2000. In that case a neighborhood school would be open on the current Ohlone site."

Now, I didn't have Everyday Math when I went to school here, but I'm pretty sure the increase in elementary enrollment since 1997 is well over 150.

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Posted by Erin Tuomy Mershon
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Mar 12, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Here is the link to the original article if anyone wants to read it for context: Web Link

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 12, 2014 at 4:03 pm

@Erin - your dad is missed by PAUSD… and he definitely had backbone!

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Posted by Let's get busy
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 12, 2014 at 8:28 pm

Thanks for putting in context the reality that the boards have been recycling the same argument every year for more than 15 years of student population growth. As we have seen thousands more students in the district over that period, each year the board has vacillated over whether to open a 13th elementary school as we have watched our elementary campuses become more crowded. Nearly all of the campuses have been long overcrowded, obviating the need to hinge the decision on future growth rates.
In one sense, you are right that it is not about the money since the district's revenues this year are around $10 million greater than they were projecting just two years ago. And yet, in the board's mind it is about the money. They simply refuse to commit a basic responsibility of providing reasonable school sizes as they cling to a strategy of cramming more and more kids into the same campuses.
We can think of this as a "penny wise, children's interests foolish" policy.
Unfortunately, the decision has been made for this year. As concerned parents, we need to participate in the superintendent selection criteria survey to advocate for broad values in the new superintendent. Then, we need to participate actively in the school board campaigns this fall. We need to support candidates with backbone and good values such as; a neighborhood school for the 13 elementary, embracing compliance with state and federal laws, safe routes to school, site based innovation rather than site based autonomy, social/emotional well being as a critical path to student success and a climate without fear of retribution for dissent.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 12, 2014 at 8:53 pm

Let's get busy.

You make some great points.

We have a school board election this year. It is now March. I am hopeful that we will have candidates who will be willing to move on this and other common sense issues. We must not have more of the same.

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Posted by LL Lean
a resident of Los Altos
on Mar 12, 2014 at 10:48 pm

Why can't the local PA, Los Altos and MV school districts come together for a solution. Los Altos does not have space yet it has many students who live in PA and have to cross El Camino to go to school. Joint district magnet school perhaps would solve many problems.
These districts working and thinking in silos is maddening. Let's think outside the box and collaborate - "you have space, I have kids but no space, let's talk."

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2014 at 7:51 am

All I can say is that if my child was overflowed to some trailer in Barron Park after I bought a home across town I would want someone's head. All that driving and my child not having a neighborhood school experience? That's insanity. Also the schools are just too large. 500 is a middle school not an elementary. That's too big.

This is the worst board in PAUSD history. No surprise that this gang that can't shoot straight missed the target again.

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

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