Palo Alto school board approves new Cubberley lease in 4-1 vote


After a brief discussion and almost sweeping expressions of support, the Palo Alto school board approved Tuesday night a new five-year lease for Cubberley Community Center.

All but one board member voiced support for the new agreement, which most significantly diverges in that it no longer includes a "covenant not to develop," which obligated the City of Palo Alto to pay the district about $1.86 million annually not to develop several school properties throughout the city. Per the new lease terms, those funds will instead be used to "repair, renovate and/or improve" the dilapidated campus on Middlefield Road.

The school district and the city will also move jointly to come up with a master plan for the entire Middlefield Road campus, in keeping with a recommendation from a community stakeholders group known as the Cubberley Advisory Committee.

"I think this is a bad precedent," said board member Camille Townsend, who cast the sole dissenting vote. "I think it's a very bad precedent in our community and city to look to the school district and to the school district's operating budget to fund infrastructure."

Townsend's comments contrasted with those from the rest of the dais. Board member Heidi Emberling thanked Superintendent Max McGee for leading the district to an agreement after two years of discussions with the city, which she called "no small feat." McGee characterized the new lease as a "step in the right direction," heralding further cooperation on other city-school collaborations such as Project Safety Net and future master planning.

"I'm glad we were able to come to a compromise," said vice president Melissa Baten Caswell. "I'm glad we were able to align as closely as possible to what the CAC (Cubberley Advisory Committee) had recommended. I'm disappointed we're losing $1.9 million in operating funds, but sometimes to make a compromise happen you have to give things up, and the city is giving things up as well."

Board member Dana Tom called the lease agreement a "reasonable compromise" and lauded the fact that McGee secured flexibility for the district on future use of the Cubberley space.

"I think that was one of the things we had to have, so thank you," Tom said.

The board's vote followed the City Council's unanimous approval of the lease Monday evening.

City Manager James Keene called the lease amendment "a really, really positive step for both the school district and the city."

Councilman Larry Klein praised Keene and McGee for their spirit of collaboration in reaching the deal and proclaimed it "a very good night for the community."

Mayor Nancy Shepherd agreed and noted that Cubberley is badly rundown and needs the kind of attention that the school district and the city are gearing up to provide.

"I hope this gets launched quickly and we have a very good plan in five years," she said.

The board also heard a report on its financial health Tuesday night, with Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak urging the board to "exercise caution in making ongoing expenditure commitments" in light of the $1.86 million loss from the new Cubberley lease. This drop in revenue will be spread over two years, with half in 2014-15 and half in 2015-16, she said.

Mak also described a shift in funding sources, with the district increasingly relying on locally generated funding rather than from the state or federal government. Since 2008, funding from fundraising foundation Partners in Education (PiE), a parcel tax voters approved in 2010 and other local donations have increased while state and federal revenue has decreased and stayed flat, Mak said.

Palo Alto's per-student funding has also increased slightly, from $13,719 last year to $14,127 this year, though Mak noted that this spending has not kept up with inflation and is behind that of many other high-performing districts across the country.

Baten Caswell called this "disturbing."

"I've said it before and I'll say it again. We're getting under $15,000 per student and that looks pretty good in the state, but that's the average for the country and it's way below the districts that we compete against across the country," she said, citing a district Palo Alto is often compared to, Scarsdale Union Free School District in New York, which spends $30,000 per student, she said.

"We are really lucky in Palo Alto that we have local sources of funds, but even with the local sources of funds, we're at the median for the country," Caswell added. "I don't think anybody in this city who spent a ridiculous amount of money to live in the house they're living in would accept our schools to be middle of the pack for the country."

Related content:

City, school district reach breakthrough on Cubberley

• View the main terms of the lease and the amendment.

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