The Palo Alto school district has no compelling need to look into opening a new elementary, middle or K-8 school, a majority of the Board of Education decided Tuesday, given declining enrollment and an already tight budget. They expressed support, however, for repurposing district property into sites for innovative programs that can be connected to existing schools.
Most board members agreed with staff projections that show enrollment at all levels in the district eventually going down over the next five years after a large class moves through the middle and high schools.
The effects of declining enrollment at the elementary schools are already evident: 26 classrooms across the district are no longer used for primary academic purposes, and schools that used to have three or four kindergarten classes now have two, staff said.
Only board President Heidi Emberling supported the staff's idea to bring in a consultant to look at the feasibility of opening a combined elementary and middle school. She said she was not as confident as staff or some of her colleagues that the district will continue to see a "steep" decline in enrollment, particularly at the elementary schools.
"(I) don't want to stuff as many elementary school students as possible onto a site because we can technically do so," Emberling said.
Pointing to a minority report penned by three members of last year's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee that supported opening a 13th elementary school, she asked: "We have accommodated all of these students in our current schools, but at what cost?"
Forty portable classrooms are in use across Palo Alto's campuses, she said, and kindergarten classes have more than 20 students.
"I understand when you look at the new school solely from perspective of budget, it doesn't seem an obvious choice, but we make budget priority decisions all the time," Emberling said. "I am very confident that we could figure this out if we wanted to."
When the enrollment-committee was meeting, the board was "exhorted by our community to be bold, to innovate, to be a lighthouse district," she added.
Trustee Ken Dauber, too, said there is still room for conversations about the benefits of smaller elementary schools, and expressed interest in another proposal from the district’s enrollment committee to open a K-8 language-focused school that would bring the district’s language-immersion programs under one roof. There is, however, no money in the budget for any new school given the district’s current $4.2 million deficit, he said.
There was more support on the board for directing any available funds to support innovation at the district’s existing schools. Superintendent Max McGee offered a preliminary proposal to move the district office, at 25 Churchill Ave., to Cubberley Community Center, and repurpose the Churchill Avenue space into some sort of innovative program.
Early staff ideas for this program range from an expansion of the district’s early-childhood education services and an independent, alternative program like Mountain View-Los Altos High School District’s Freestyle Academy to growing the high schools’ freshman cohort programs or specialized pathways.
Trustee Camille Townsend said doing something at the high school level would be a way for the district to respond to what she described as a "drumbeat for a different way," as well as to help mitigate expected enrollment growth at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools.
Gunn’s student board representative, senior Ankit Ranjan, cautioned board members and asked them to consider how putting a new program in place at Churchill Avenue, next door to Paly, would affect equity between the two high schools.
"I know that many people at Gunn do feel like our community is seen as kind of reflexive and responding to changes that are happening on this side of town. ... This might be just a logistic problem where space is, but it’s important to take into consideration where the center of gravity is around innovation and about changing this district," Ranjan said.
"I think that there’s legitimate merit to trying to start innovation programs at Gunn simply for the fact to equalize that playing field and bring the center closer to that side of town."
Vice President Terry Godfrey and Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell also suggested that the district tackle a recurring, and often controversial, proposal to look at redrawing enrollment boundaries given uneven growth in some areas of the city.
Dauber said he hopes the district will work to address a problem particularly in the Palo Verde neighborhood, where a significant number of students cannot attend their neighborhood school.
McGee said he will work with staff to further refine their ideas for repurposing existing school properties. He is also currently leading a team of teachers, the "High School Learning Design Team," charged at the board’s direction with proliferating innovation at the existing schools.
"The board actually gave you direction a number of months ago that we’d like to see some further investments in our existing high schools," Baten Caswell told McGee. "I don’t want to drop that because I think there are a lot of good ideas there, but we haven’t invested in them."