Stanford University's proposal to build hundreds of new housing units for graduate students, faculty and staff over the next 17 years represents a level of growth that a majority of Palo Alto school board members said will likely require a new elementary school in the future.
Four of the five board members agreed at a meeting last Tuesday, Nov. 7, that the school district should consider how it would serve an influx of children who could move into proposed housing on the west side of Stanford's campus in particular. Vice President Ken Dauber recused himself given his wife works at Stanford.
Stanford is in the midst of a public review process for its updated General Use Permit, which proposes to build 2.275 million net new square feet of academic buildings, 3,150 housing units and 40,000 net new square feet of child care centers between 2018 and 2035. Of the planned housing, 1,700 are for undergraduates students, 900 units are for graduates (mostly singles or couples) and 550 for faculty and staff, according to the university.
Santa Clara County recently released a draft environmental impact report on the project and is seeking input from stakeholders and the public through Dec. 4.
On Tuesday, the board agreed on nine draft comments it will send to the county in a letter. The letter states that "the opening of another school on the Stanford campus is the only solution that preserves reasonable school enrollment size and avoids the very poor alternatives" of enlarged enrollment at Escondido and Nixon elementary schools or creating an "unacceptable travel burden" for students and parents.
At the board's Nov. 7 meeting, board member Todd Collins called Stanford West an "emerging neighborhood" that reflects a historical pattern. In the 1950s and 1960s when Stanford built new faculty housing, Escondido and Nixon were opened in those areas of campus.
"Stanford builds neighborhoods for faculty and staff," Collins said. "We build schools for the kids who live there."
Collins estimated that the Stanford project could generate about 403 elementary students for the school district -- the combination of current students who live on the west side of campus plus estimated ones from the development -- which is just under the current average size of a district elementary school.
To rely on the district's existing schools to accommodate theses students, sites that are located farther away from the west side of campus, would not only impact enrollment (and as a result, areas such as class size and program offerings), but inevitably create more traffic, board members said.
Board member Jennifer DiBrienza also described it as a safety issue.
"The more we build housing where there is no school, the more small kids have to commute and that increases the likelihood they have to cross a larger road or they just have to go farther," she said on Nov. 7.
Students who currently live in Stanford West attend Escondido, and many are bused to the campus, according to the district. The school is currently operating at capacity.
Having a neighborhood school close by for Stanford faculty and staff is also a boon for the university, board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
"One of the things you provide to your employees and students is the benefits of having good schools in your neighborhood," she told Jean McCown, associate vice president for Stanford's Office of Government and Community Relations. "I think it's something we should talk about."
The district estimates that it would cost $1 million annually to operate a new elementary school.
The board's draft letter also adjusts an "unrealistically low" student generation rate Stanford had used in its projections. The original rate, 0.5 children per household, came from an enrollment forecast that has historically been unreliable in the district. The letter instead suggests using a 0.65 rate, the average of the student yield from two recent Stanford housing projects (Olmsted Terrace, a single-family home development on Stanford Avenue and Mayfield Place, a multifamily housing development on El Camino Real).
The letter also asks the county to acknowledge that the impact of new developments doesn't happen incrementally, but rather in "narrow bursts" that create enrollment surges in the district.
"New projects attract younger families and this leads to bubbles that start in the early grades," the letter states, citing Stanford West, where 70 percent of the students who live there are in elementary school compared to 42 percent in the district overall.
The board also requests that Stanford consider the impact of its use permit on school commute, involve the district if the university considers adding more housing than originally planned and consider the reduced property tax revenue the district receives from Stanford housing, among other points.
The board will vote to approve the letter at its Dec. 5 meeting (the plans to ask the county for an extension on the deadline).