The Palo Alto school district's debate over the urgency to open a 13th elementary school, defined by years of delays in decision making, took a new turn Tuesday night with Superintendent Max McGee recommending the board convene a committee to examine the need for a new school.
The majority of the school board got behind McGee's recommendation, which came in conjunction with the 14th day enrollment report for this school year, which shows continued growth, overflow of students to schools farther away and limited classroom space in the areas of the district that are the most crowded. Projected future growth means sending more elementary school students to more distant sites to keep class sizes small; and using portables and sharing classrooms at Palo Alto's near-capacity middle schools.
"I'll tell you my experience in looking at this data: I do think it's time we address this," he said.
McGee called to either reconvene a past study committee that worked on the issue or create a new advisory team to look at a path forward on a new 13th elementary school as well as possibly a fourth middle school -- "and/or other innovative, educationally sound ways of managing our growth." He said the committee should launch this fall and provide the board with recommendations in the spring.
All board members, with the exception of Camille Townsend, expressed a similar urgency in finally getting this done.
"It's been very hard for our school sizes to be at a comfortable level, and I think they've been at that (uncomfortable) level for awhile," said board member Dana Tom. "Given the expected growth that we will likely see, the question of a fourth middle school and 13th elementary school is a question of when, and not if."
Tom, whose term ends in November, suggested that the new board look at a demographer's report in early December, which will provide updated projections, and then "make a high-level call" before even convening a committee.
President Barb Mitchell, whose term also ends this fall, said she doesn't think the demographer's report will shed new light, and urged the next board to move forward with work on approving a facilities master plan for enrollment growth, which the district does not have. Mitchell remembered an advisory committee that in 2007 warned the board it had "passed the trigger point" on building a new school.
"It's time to act and to get some action items on the board agenda as opposed to information items," she said.
Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell said when her son started five years ago at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School, "it felt pretty packed." Both JLS and Jordan Middle School now enroll about 1,100 students and are projected to continue to grow.
"I'm concerned that we don't have a strong plan for how we're going to manage middle school growth over the long term," Caswell said. "I'm actually more worried about that than I am at the elementary level."
Though Townsend expressed her support for building new elementary and middle schools, she described this year's enrollment numbers as "calm."
"These numbers don't surprise me," she said. "I've seen numbers that make me more nervous."
She also warned McGee to be careful on how he moves forward on the committee.
"There's nothing more upsetting than talking about boundary changes, which could be envisioned or not envisioned in a school, so I think we have to carefully craft this," she said.
"The demographer's report may or may not be helpful, but we get them for a reason because they are experts and we're not," she added. "I have seen committee work early on be very hard when we don't have values laid out. ... I don't want to jump into this without being very thoughtful."
McGee's call came despite the fact that this year's enrollment numbers show growth in Palo Alto's middle schools and a shrinking population in elementary schools.
Total middle school enrollment this year is 2,952 students, 165 more than last year. Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak said they expect this growth pattern to continue for the next two years, with increases at every grade level, and then tapering off.
Total enrollment in kindergarten through fifth grade this year is down by 131 students, from 5,816 last year to 5,685 this year.
Mak characterized this drop as temporary, attributing it to a large outgoing fifth-grade class of 1,005 students and smaller incoming kindergarten class. A decline in kindergarten, first- and second-grade enrollment is also temporary due to the state's new kindergarten-age law that moved kindergarten's entrance date back, McGee said. The numbers in this report are thus 11-month cohorts, and beginning next year, the kindergarten and future classes will again be 12-month cohorts.
Going back to the 12-month cycle means projected growth in enrollment of anywhere from 74 to 82 students in next year's kindergarten class, Mak said.
A total of 132 K-5 students were overflowed this year, meaning there was insufficient room for them to attend their neighborhood school. With 50 overflowed students from past years who have still not been able to attend their neighborhood school, that means the district's K-5 overflow number is really closer to 200.
Tom cautioned that the next board should not see opening a 13th elementary school as a panacea to the overflow situation.
"Some amount of overflow is due to year-to-year variation in students per grade level per attendance area and has nothing to do with school capacity," he said. "The only way to reduce those overflows is having more classrooms that are smaller than the 23-24 (students) we target or larger than 23-24," with the first option having a financial cost and the second an educational cost.
With significantly higher elementary growth in the district's southern and western clusters 31 percent and 20 percent over the past 10 years, respectively and little available space in those areas, Mak said overflow will continue.
Board members also referenced variables in the new-school equation that must be considered, such as the impact of the potential closure of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park on its 101 students enrolled in Palo Alto elementary, middle and high schools; and the unsure future of the school district's portion of Cubberley Community Center.
High school enrollment only jumped by 15 students, but Mak cautioned that there will be substantial growth at Palo Alto's two high schools over the next five years as a large middle school bubble passes through the system.
McGee said he is ready to get started on committee work and would be planning the application process and contacting former committee members between now and the next board meeting on Oct. 7.