The third time's the charm, the school district hopes, as it moves toward creating the third committee in two years that is charged with issuing recommendations to the board on how to best accommodate growing enrollment in Palo Alto's schools.
School board members Tuesday night were encouraged that a committee with a broader scope, charged with looking deeper and beyond the isolated option of opening a thirteenth elementary school, will be the renewing push that this long-debated issue needs.
"When we've done this before, it's always been about the financials and the number of students we have," said board President Melissa Baten Caswell. "That's always been the driving force. It's always been a bit frustrating to me because really, it should be, 'What do we want our academic program to look like? What do we want the environment around that academic program to be?' And then, 'How can we accomplish that and serve all the kids that come in to us?'
"It's been backwards. I think this is a way to make it forwards," she said.
The new advisory committee will be tasked with bringing to the board a set of "strategic, evidence-based, actionable recommendations that will enable the district to design, develop, and implement short- and long-term plans for accommodating projected PAUSD enrollment," the group's charge reads.
These recommendations are not limited to a thirteenth elementary school, but could mean a new K-8 school, fourth middle school or something else entirely, Superintendent Max McGee said. The committee will also explore the possibility of changing attendance-area boundaries, moving popular choice programs or recommending new ones.
Board member Camille Townsend stressed the importance of the committee coming up with multiple fleshed-out options for the board to eventually vote on.
"Part of the reason we have committees do this is not that they have the answers," she said. "It's that they get their questions answered and it exposes the information throughout the community that this is complicated. I'd like to see the information they come up with. For me, I'd like to see options."
Board member Ken Dauber agreed, but repeated a point he continually made throughout the recent school board campaign: The district needs to deal with its overcrowded elementary schools, even if recent data shows temporarily slowing enrollment growth.
Total enrollment in kindergarten through fifth grade this year is down by 131 students, from 5,816 last year to 5,685 this year, according to the 14th-day enrollment report released in the fall. (However, a total of 132 K-5 students were overflowed this year, meaning there was insufficient room for them to attend their neighborhood school.)
"What I do want to make certain of is that we don't treat enrollment growth as the criteria because I think that with respect to elementary schools ... there's a good case for middle schools as well, our current state isn't the state that we should be happy with," Dauber said.
Dauber also urged McGee to think about the time and opportunity costs of yet again deferring a board decision on enrollment.
"I encourage you to make this as short a time frame as is reasonable and to focus the committee on where we can get value out of committee's work," he said. "The committee doesn't need to boil the whole ocean."
Dauber said the committee, for example, doesn't need to make any financial recommendations to the board, but rather simply present the costs of potential options.
All board members also told McGee that they want to be connected to the process and that both they and the public are regularly updated on the committee's work, which is slated to begin in late February or early March, McGee said.
The committee's charge will return to the board at its next meeting on Jan. 27 for approval, after which the application process would begin. The committee will aim to issue its recommendations to the board this fall.