A plan to significantly renovate Addison Elementary School took a step forward Tuesday night with the Palo Alto school board unanimously accepting the first of what is expected to be several major donations made to fully fund the project.
The board approved an anonymous $1.33 million donation to cover pre-construction tasks for the project, which district staff have estimated could cost in total $16.96 million. Plans include building a new two-story building that would house the administration on the bottom floor and a new library on the second floor, a new multi-purpose room, replacing portables with new classrooms and creating more outdoor-learning environments for a school whose staff and parents say is uncomfortably crunched on physical space.
The anonymous donor has communicated to the district, through a representative, that he or she intends to cover the full cost of the project, Superintendent Max McGee has said. The donor also provided a $25,000 planning grant last spring to support a process at the site to develop a conceptual design with the district's architect, parents, teachers, staff and students.
Addison is the oldest elementary school in the district and has more children per site acre than any of the district's other 11 elementary schools, according to district staff. Addison's office manager, Nancy Panayides, told the board Tuesday that there is "not one iota of space" at Addison on certain days of the week.
Principal Amanda Boyce's office doubles as a conference room, Panayides said, and the school's counseling intern works behind a curtain out of the library office. The school has had to stagger recess and lunch for older and younger students to make sure there's space for students to comfortably and safely play and be outside, among other accommodations, she said.
"There is no parity in our geographic space," said Kelli Tomlinson, Addison parent and co-chair of the school's site council, referring to the district-adopted value of "progressive parity," which aims to ensure equity in facilities and education opportunities between all the schools.
At a previous board discussion on the project, at least two board members, Ken Dauber and Melissa Baten Caswell, expressed concerns about the implications such significant improvements at Addison would have on this value.
On Tuesday, the board, however, voted against a staff recommendation to bring parity among the district's 12 elementary schools by allocating $163,000 to draft conceptual designs for the other schools. Several board members questioned the value of committing the district to such planning efforts without the dollars in the bank to back them up.
Dauber said in his eyes, that would amount to "window dressing."
"My concern about that is that we're asking staff and parents and community members to spend a lot of time engaged in a design process for improvements that we don't have funding for and that would require that we take several steps in order to be in a position to do that," Dauber said.
Board President Heidi Emberling agreed, saying that the schools are best served when "we plan closest to the time that we need these improvements."
Dauber made a motion, supported by all board members except Baten Caswell, to strike the recommendation to engage in conceptual-design work with the other 11 elementary schools.
Baten Caswell insisted that the district needs to have a "roadmap for progressive parity" a plan made ahead of time for what the individual sites are most in need of and how the district can use $60.3 million currently in the district's Strong Schools Bond reserves for future elementary improvements. Hanging in the balance is also the potential cost of building a 13th elementary school, which some board members have indicated support for.
"Whether it needs to be a $163,000 roadmap, I'm not necessarily sold on that number or the whole process, but I feel very strongly that if we don't have a roadmap for what we want to do next, we will go off and do something else and we won't pay attention to progressive parity here," Baten Caswell said.
The district could always alter any plans or identified priorities, "but to not have a roadmap? That seems like we're not really committed to progressive parity," she said.
At least three other board members agreed during board operations, at the end of the meeting, to discuss the idea of a roadmap for the elementary schools' facilities funding at a future meeting.
Proposed gifts policy
Earlier in the evening, the board also considered a new policy around how to handle major donations. The board's policy review committee (BPRC) discussed the policy last week and proposed adding a requirement that the superintendent seek board direction on donations anticipated to be in excess of $1 million.
The policy also says that school principals can 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, but anything more would require board approval.
Baten Caswell said that the policy should also include language around progressive parity; anonymity of donors (she suggested that the superintendent and legal counsel, for example, be informed of an anonymous donor's identity so that there is "confidence that there's no strings attached"); and, if district funds are going to be required to complete a project supported in part by a donation, that the board discuss such funding prior to accepting any gift.
Other board members supported the idea of having someone within the district know the identity of a donor who wishes to remain anonymous publicly, and noted that Stanford University requires that somebody at the school knows who a donor is in order for an anonymous donation to be made.
Baten Caswell also requested explicit language around the board's involvement in donations, not necessarily linked to the amount of the gift, as proposed.
"To me, it's not an amount of money. If I'm a donor and I give $10 with the assumption that it's going to be a $10 million project with small donations over time, the board needs to talk about it when its $10," Baten Caswell said.
In the case of the Addison project, the board did not talk about it when it was at its $10 equivalent. The donor gave the $25,000 planning grant last May; Addison then embarked on an in-depth design process, with the support of district leadership, over the next several months. The board's first full discussion of the donation and proposed improvements, however, came this February, almost a year later. The new language in the proposed gifts policy around a $1 million trigger for seeking board direction was developed in part as a result of that.
Others, however, worried about making the district's process for accepting donations unfriendly and unappealing.
"I want to make it an easy process for people to give us money," said board member Camille Townsend. "I'm getting uncomfortable that we're being onerous in our statements. While I'm supportive of transparency and everything else, I feel like we're hammering people in a way that doesn't feel good. I need to see a policy that reflects our gratitude."
She suggested contacting past major donors to seek feedback about their experiences with the district's process and asked the two board members who serve on the BPRC, Dauber and Terry Godfrey, to be "very cautious" in adding additional stipulations.
"Our goal, at least from my perspective, will be to address a process that brings clarity to the extent that we can and that is not at all intended to increase the burden on donors in fact, quite the opposite," Dauber said.
The gifts policy will return to BPRC before coming back to the board for action at a later date. The board will next discuss the Addison project when a schematic design is developed.