Palo Alto school district leadership are recommending against the long-discussed proposal of opening a 13th elementary school, but leaving the door open on a new standalone middle school or combined K-8 site. The school board will discuss these recommendations and a staff report on the feasibility of opening a new school at its Tuesday, Sept. 27, meeting.
Based on current and projected enrollment, it is "reasonable" to believe that elementary and middle school enrollment will decline over the next five years, the report from Superintendent Max McGee reads. The district’s enrollment numbers do not justify opening a new elementary school, he wrote.
Given declining enrollment and the cost of opening a new school, McGee said it is also "hard to justify" opening either a fourth middle school or combined elementary and middle school. He is, however, preliminarily recommending that the district "take the pulse of the community," he told the Weekly, by contracting with a consultant to find out if there is sufficient community support -- and financial resources -- for either option.
The staff report states that opening an additional elementary, middle or K-8 school would require "significant reprioritization" of district operating funds or an entirely new revenue source.
McGee is most firm on his recommendation against opening a standalone elementary site.
"Given that enrollment projections are below the most conservative forecast of the District’s demographers, that the current kindergarten is the smallest of all classes currently in our schools, that the size of incoming classes has been decreasing over the past six years, and that the district already has more than 25 elementary classrooms not being used for regular classes, there is not a need to open a new school to house elementary students," the report states. "Moreover, the additional capital and operating costs for opening a new school would require resources currently beyond those available."
Though Palo Alto’s 12 elementary schools range in size from 287 students (at Barron Park Elementary School) to 578 students (at Ohlone Elementary School), according to the district’s latest enrollment report, staff states that there is not a "compelling educational or social emotional value" to closing the gap between different school’s sizes.
The "only rationale" for opening a new elementary school at this point, McGee wrote, would be if the board wanted to add or relocate a choice program, such as one of the district’s language immersion programs.
The district estimates the annual operating cost for a new elementary school at about $1.2 million. Though "incredibly tentative" given there is no specific site identified for a new elementary school, it could cost about $40 million and take about three and a half years to build, according to the district.
The report notes that there are "arguably" advantages to opening a fourth middle school -- including bringing down overall size from more than 1,000 students at Jordan and JLS middle schools closer to the size of Terman, which enrolled about 700 students this year -- but that they are outweighed by the financial costs, the report states. The district estimates a standalone middle school would cost the district $70 million to build and $2.8 million to operate, with a construction timeline of four and a half years.
The district did not provide a price tag for building and operating a K-8 school, but estimated it would fall somewhere between the costs for a standalone elementary and middle school.
While the "prospect of opening a new K-8 school is appealing for the opportunities it provides to make exciting changes," McGee wrote that he is "not sure that the academic, social-emotional, or even equity and access benefits outweigh the significant financial costs."
"That said, if the community and Board would like to pursue the possibility on a deeper level, I recommend contracting with a consultant or facilitator to lead and facilitate a next step within the next few months so that we can incorporate it into the Cubberley planning committee’s work," he wrote, referencing the district’s current joint-planning effort with the city to determine the future of Cubberley Community Center.
The district owns four sites where a potential new school could be built: the old, 5-acre Garland Elementary School site, which the district currently leases to Stratford Schools; a 2.6-acre site on San Antonio Road currently leased to Athena Academy; the 35-acre Cubberley Community Center, which the district co-owns with the city; and a 8-acre site in Fremont Hills currently occupied by Pinewood School. The staff report notes that opening a school at any of these sites would also mean a loss of rental revenue.
If the board opts against opening a new middle or K-8 school, staff recommends looking into repurposing space at either Cubberley or the district’s own office, at 25 Churchill Ave., for "innovative educational programs and services."
"Being in the heart of Silicon Valley, we sense that while opening a new school may not be practical in terms of enrollment and finance, there is support for an innovative alternative choice placement for middle school and high school students that is not only smaller but also more tailored to students’ personalized abilities, aptitudes and attitudes and less emphasis on grades and test scores than our current secondary schools," the staff report states.
Spaces like Cubberley or the district office could house these kind of programs, staff suggests, which could either be extensions of existing schools or independent alternatives, like the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District’s Freestyle Academy of Communication Arts & Technology. (There, juniors and seniors take a portion of their course load in small classes focused on project-based learning.)
The report also offers the option of turning some space into child-care centers, which "could benefit the community in several ways and potentially be a source of revenue."
The board will vote on staff recommendations at its Oct. 18 meeting.
In other business Tuesday, the board will also vote on where to make cuts in the 2016-17 budget to address a $4.2 million deficit.
The board will consider two similar lists of potential cuts from staff. One option, which staff recommend approving, proposes slightly higher budget cuts for the district office -- $485,000 compared to $300,000 -- but less for certificated and classified personnel.
McGee said the district is now trying to hire for two unfilled part-time math specialist positions originally proposed as potential savings but is still recommending reallocating $125,000 from an unfilled instructional coach position.
Both options provide for about $3.4 million in savings.
The board will discuss further cuts for the 2017-18 budget at special meeting scheduled for the morning of Oct. 18. The largest proposal for savings by far is an estimated $2.5 million from re-negotiating compensation increases with the district’s teachers and classified unions, as well as adjusting raises provided to senior administrators. Some non-teaching positions could also be eliminated, according to a staff report.
On Tuesday, the board will also hear a report on the elementary schools' results from the 2016 Smarter Balanced assessment, the Teacher’s College Writing Assessments and the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA); take action on a schematic design for a major remodel of Addison Elementary School; and discuss sending out bids for the Central Building Project at Gunn High School. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at the district office. Read the full agenda here.