The Palo Alto school board enthusiastically endorsed Tuesday night a multi-million dollar plan, paid for in full by an anonymous donor, to revamp Addison Elementary School's facilities, with only one board member sounding a note of caution about making sure the project adheres to a district value of progressive parity.
Almost a year ago, an anonymous donor stepped forward with interest in funding significant improvements at Addison, which is the district's oldest elementary school and as one of the smallest physical sites in the district, it has more children per site acre than any of the district's other 11 elementary schools, staff said at Tuesday's board meeting.
The donor has so far provided a $25,000 planning grant and $1.33 million to cover pre-construction costs, but intends to fund the entire project, which staff estimate could cost up to $17 million.
Planned improvements include a new two-story building that would house the administration on the first floor and a redesigned library on the second (and also move the administration building, which is currently less accessible on the inside of the campus, to the front of campus); a new multi-purpose room (the current one is old and does not fit the entire school population); more flexible rooms on campus; and replacing eight portables with permanent classrooms to open up more outdoor play and learning space for students.
Board members were "excited," "enthused," "impressed" and thought the plan was "terrific."
"This school is behind and we need to move forward," said board member Camille Townsend. "It's great that we've done Ohlone. It's great that we've done Duveneck, Fairmeadow. We've got to keep on marching down."
Ohlone, Duveneck and Fairmeadow elementary schools have all received new two-story classroom buildings in recent years. A priority of the district's $378M Strong Schools Bond, which voters passed in 2008, was to replace portables with permanent classroom buildings, Bond Program Manager Bob Golton told the board Tuesday. The district has also redone libraries at all of its elementary schools except for Addison and Hoover.
Where the Addison project becomes unique is the proposed revamp of its aging multi-purpose (MP) room, a problem that almost every other elementary school has, board member Ken Dauber noted Tuesday night. He pointed to the board's value of progressive parity, under which the district must "provide adequate and comparable school facilities, learning environments, educational experiences, opportunities, and staffing ratios throughout the district, including shared resources (such as libraries, subject specific classrooms, elective spaces, support staff areas, and athletic/play/outdoor areas). While recognizing that major facility renovations are incremental and sequential by nature ('progressive'), all facility improvements will be deliberately planned and phased to honor and work toward districtwide parity."
"The question I think for the board is, in accepting this donation for the improvements, is the district acting in a way that's consistent with that policy?" Dauber asked.
Funding this multi-purpose room and not ones at other schools "on the face of it produces inequity," he added.
"It's important because it supports the idea of educational equity and opportunity across the district and it avoids a situation in which we essentially authorize capital campaigns at each of our schools to raise money to do the things that the district has decided not to do," Dauber said of the board's policy on progressive parity. "MP rooms, I think, are an example of that.
"We don't want a race to the top in our individual school communities," he continued. "We want to have a collective responsibility for comparable facilities."
In the name of parity, Golton is recommending that the board allocate $163,000 to contract with the district's architect to develop conceptual designs for the other elementary schools. A total of $60.3 million currently sits in the district's Strong Schools Bond reserves for future elementary improvements. Superintendent Max McGee said "the plan is to incorporate that (MP rooms) into the design of the other schools."
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said the recommendation to plan for the other schools is the "critical linchpin."
"It's really important to me that we have a plan across the district so that we can serve progressive parity across the board. We might not be able to invest in it tomorrow but if we plan, we can say, 'When can we do the next one?'
"If it's important to have an MP room that serves this many kids at Addison then it's important that we have an MP room that serves this many kids at Duveneck, too, and at Escondido and El Carmelo" and the other schools, she said.
But Tom Hodges of construction management firm Fs3 Hodges said that it's not as simple as saying, "let's take off three portables at one school and build a building" or a new multi-purpose room "because you may be losing an opportunity to really improve the campus overall."
The district has long-term plans at Duveneck, for example, to take out a few classrooms, convert an old multi-purpose room into classrooms and then build a new multi-purpose room toward the front of campus, but did not do that when building a new two-story classroom building several years ago.
Townsend said that if the district plans to engage the other elementary schools in conceptual design plans, it should be with a concrete commitment to action, rather than moving ahead "just to make people feel good."
"We have no intention of doing that," Golton said in response.
"Conceptual drawings without bond money put against them and without a concrete plan to turn them into buildings isn't enough to constitute parity under our district policy," Dauber told the Weekly in an interview after the meeting.
The board also discussed how to best move forward with such a significant donation from an anonymous source. Baten Caswell urged staff to "talk through what the steps would be" if the donor potentially balks when final budget comes back and its far higher than even the current estimate of $16,959,766.
She noted that this happened with a major donation for a project (now underway) to build a new athletic center for Palo Alto High School. As the project progressed and costs increased, the district's budgeted share grew from $5.7 million to $17.7 million.
Dauber also asked McGee to go back to the donor's representative and request that the donor voluntarily commit to revealing his or her identity at some point. Other board members said they had no issue with the donor remaining anonymous as long as he or she is not driving the process or district's priorities. Staff and board members characterized the process so far as "collaborative" and hands-off, with the donor deferred to the school site to identify its own priorities for facilities improvements.
"Who's providing very substantial dollars to public construction of schools in our district is I think information that the public has the right to know," Dauber argued.
Members of the Peery family, who made the largest single gift to the school district in its history to build Paly's new athletic center, first made the donation anonymously, but later publicly revealed their identities just before the board voted on conceptual plans for the project.
Dauber also voiced a concern that the board's first full discussion of the project came almost a year into the process. Baten Caswell agreed, and McGee responded that the issue could be addressed with potential policy changes.
The project will return to the board for action at its next meeting on March 8. If the board approves the project, construction would start by February 2018 and the new buildings would open by August 2019, according to a proposed timeline.