Palo Alto school board committee eyes new donations policy

Addison Elementary project raises questions of equity, board involvement in gifts

The Palo Alto Board of Education's policy-review committee proposed Thursday morning that the superintendent seek the board's direction for any gift to the district in excess of $1 million.

The policy proposal comes at a time when a much larger donation -- potentially $17 million -- is currently on the table from an anonymous donor to improve the facilities at Addison Elementary School. The district has been in talks with the donor for almost a year, though the project just came to the board for a full discussion on Feb. 22. The donor has already contributed $25,000 for planning and an additional $1.3 million to cover pre-construction costs but intends to fully fund the project, which staff estimates could cost $16.96 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; move the current administration building to the front of campus; a new multi-purpose room that will be able to 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.

Superintendent Max McGee and staff recently proposed a new administrative regulation with a provision that gifts in excess of $50,000 require board approval. Under this proposal, school principals could approve and accept gifts up to $25,000 and the superintendent or a district designee could approve and accept gifts of up to $50,000.

Board member Ken Dauber, the committee chair, said Thursday that gifts as large as the Addison donation require timely board involvement and feedback in the interest of making sure all schools offer comparable facilities and educational opportunities.

"The issue here is how to create a policy that makes it clear that the superintendent should seek guidance from the board before negotiating a large gift," Dauber said. "I think the goal here is to enable the board to express its opinion about the shape of the gift before it's set in stone."

McGee said the district has in place a similar process for large budget requests: Those in excess of $1 million are brought before the board as full agenda items that the board must vote on, rather than as "consent" items that are approved routinely and without discussion.

Dauber proposed adding new language to the proposed gifts, grants and bequests policy to make clear that the superintendent "shall seek direction from the board prior to negotiating gifts anticipating to amount more than $1 million."

Board member Terry Godfrey and McGee supported this addition.

Godfrey also said that it's important to consider how a policy could potentially help with a relationship with a donor: "You don't want to ruin the relationship with a donor by having these early conversations (without the board) and then you've started something you can't finish when you come to the board and we say, 'No, we don't want to do that.'"

She urged a policy that strikes a balance between involving the board and adhering to policies and practices but one that doesn't "alienate" donors.

Under the proposed policy, the district must also evaluate the purpose for which the gift is given, which "must be consistent with the stated purpose, goals, objectives, and educational philosophy of the district"; the nature of the gift, the identity of the donor and the kind of program that the gift is intended to support.

Under current board policy on gifts, the board, superintendent or designee must consider whether a particular donation has a purpose consistent with the district's vision and philosophy; begins a program that the board would be unable to continue when the donated funds are exhausted; entails undesirable or excessive costs; or implies endorsement of any business or product.

Annual donations from Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) for the general operation of the schools are excluded from the proposed approval-and-acceptance process. Gifts in excess of $25,000 that are one-time expenditures for a one-time project must be approved by the superintendent or designee, under the proposed policy. Gifts in excess of $50,000 that are one-time expenditures for a one-time project must be approved by the board. The same stipulations would apply to annual donations from established booster clubs that were formed to raise funds for the general operation of a specific program, such as athletics or music.

The proposed gifts policy will come before the full board at its next meeting on Tuesday, March 8. The board is also set to vote on the Addison donation and project at that meeting.

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16 people like this
Posted by Michael O.
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 3, 2016 at 1:49 pm

Isn't it bizarre that a public school district would recreate within its own district the same resource gap that exists between this district those in less wealthy areas? It a pitched battle to the top, starting in elementary school. Remind me again why I live here.

11 people like this
Posted by So HelpMe Hannah
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2016 at 4:34 pm

PAUSD message to children: Every child for him/herself!

2 people like this
Posted by control freak
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 3, 2016 at 5:57 pm

[Post removed due to incorrect attribution of statement.]

7 people like this
Posted by Not so Silly
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 4, 2016 at 10:53 am

So, Michael, would you prefer that the money went to a private school instead?

Did you examine attendance at the elementary schools? Addison's boundaries for attendance had to be changed in 2012 because it was overflowing to other schools. Kids are already taking classes there in 'portable classrooms', and it hasn't received any of the renovations that a number of other elementary schools have.

Refusing donations that upgrade infrastructure used by everyone at a school (because temporarily, one school will be marginally nicer than another (which is already the case, with Addison near the bottom of the heap of 'niceness)) is silly beyond belief.

At a bare minimum, it means that the district can spend its money upgrading the campuses of other schools, instead of spending on that one.

I'm far more upset about the amount of funds spent upgrading athletic facilities when our students don't even have real classrooms.

Like this comment
Posted by Michael O.
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 4, 2016 at 4:44 pm

Still silly. The richest people in Palo Alto send their kids to Addison. No one is making an eight figure donation to Briones or Barron Park. The classrooms are fine across the district -- too many students/teacher is more of a problem. (But maybe not for some, who go to Russian Math, and SAT prep, and extra tutoring, and taking classes over the summer to get better grades when they're retaken during the school year, and therefore don't really need teachers in the classroom.) That this district accepts donations for individual schools is a little crazy because it's a PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT, not a Private one. There are consequences to saying yes just as there are consequences to saying no.

5 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 4, 2016 at 8:38 pm

Thanks once again to Ken Dauber for his clarity of mind and principles. So refreshing, can we get more like this on the board this time? You're one of the good ones, Ken.

6 people like this
Posted by Former Addison parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 4, 2016 at 9:01 pm

@michael o, actually most of the richest people in Palo Alto are in the Walter hays and duveneck districts or nixon. Addison includes at least 3 low income apartment complexes and tons of rentals and tiny apartments. More than 10% of the students are socio-economically disadvantaged.

1 person likes this
Posted by Spade
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 5, 2016 at 10:08 am

I'm having trouble understanding this argument that Addison is doing so poorly because nothing was set aside to improve poor Addison, but that spending all the donated money there will free up money for everyone else. Huh?

Do you know one of the more salient signs of power imbalance is that those with all the cards stop bothering to even make their justifications remotely honest.

Like this comment
Posted by Not so silly
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 5, 2016 at 3:13 pm

@Michael O, lets deconstruct your arguments:

You assert that:
1) Classrooms are not a problem, too many students/teacher are a problem

If facilities was completely separate from the student/teacher ratio, then why would you care that a school's facilities were upgraded?

You assert that:
2) Addison gets all the rich people, and so gets all the advantages.

As mentioned elsewhere, Addison doesn't get all rich people, so the premise just isn't true. And I actually live in the neighborhood (and consider moving away since a high quality of life is difficult to maintain without lots more money) and can see this for myself directly. Do you?

Even more curious, public funds have not been spent on improvements at Addison in recent memory. You'd think that these all-powerful rich people would have corrupted city government into preferring to spend on their school if that was the motivation and they had this power, right?

The amount being offered to renovate Addison here a lot less than was spent upgrading the athletic facilities at Paly. I remain upset that we're prioritizing athletics over basic facilities for our young kids.

You asked how spending money on Addison would free up funds to spend elsewhere?
There is ~60 million in the reserve fund that can be spent on facilities improvements. Assuming Addison was on the list to be improved at all, that means that part of the 60M doesn't need to be spent on Addison, because someone else paid for it.

Like this comment
Posted by 1
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 5, 2016 at 8:17 pm

@Spade wrote "The amount being offered to renovate Addison here a lot less than was spent upgrading the athletic facilities at Paly."

You do know that Paly serves half of all district families while Addison serves only 1/12, right? And you do know that it is easier to get one school (Gunn) up to parity with Paly than it is to get 11 schools up to parity with Addision?

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Posted by Not so Silly
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 6, 2016 at 9:28 pm

@ 1<12

I wrote that, not Spade.
I didn't include any of the other spend on Paly, etc, because I don't disapprove of it.

I disapprove of spending more upgrading athletic facilities than we'd spend renovating an elementary school.

In any case, looking at the budget, we see that enrollment at the elementary schools last school year was 5663, compared to 3895 at Paly, Gunn and alternative programs.
Our middle schools had an enrollment of 2928. (This is basically 1000 kids per class)

If we allocated funds proportional to enrollment, with 5663 out of 12486, we'd allocate 45% of the budget to elementary schools.

1 person likes this
Posted by Spade
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2016 at 10:51 am

I don't disagree with you that the way the athletic facility expenditure, indeed, much of the bond expenditues, were handled, was an example of misplaced priorities and lost opportunities.

But the main justification of proponents for why they think Addison deserves this - their explanation for why Addison is in such bad shape despite the facilities bond that was supposed to renew all campuses - starts with the claim that Addison was deliberately left out.

In reality, the district on the whole got some shiny new expensive capacity-building buildings, and some very,very expensive new hardscape and paint. On the whole, facilities across the district are not possible to confuse with "new" as the bond promises. Most of the elementaries and middle school, save for the new bldgs that don't nearly represent the majority of the used space, are no different than before the bond. Addison wasn't in line to get any money, supposedly that money was for opening another elementary. if the gift at Addison changes district policy on that, shame on all of them for setting district policy based on the selfishness of one school's parents.

Do you want a genuine, strong argument for why Addison deserves the Money and improvements more than other campuses? There are a host of well researched negative outcomes associated with aging (not older, aging) school buildings, including environmental ones that can directly affect student mental health and performance. Addison is the oldest building - can you see the difference in those data? Possibly, though I doubt it because most of the schools have problems along those lines that need addressing and weren't. But, if the district were to come to terms with that whole issue, Addison would be first in line for improvements as the oldest campus.

That's only acceptable if the district develops an honest plan for dealing with such problems across the district, especially at Gunn HS.

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

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