The Palo Alto school board voted 4-1 Tuesday night to form an ad hoc committee, made up of board President Ken Dauber and Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza, to advise the superintendent on issues related to Stanford University's proposed campus expansion.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell cast the dissenting vote after voicing concerns that having Dauber, whose wife works at Stanford, serve on the committee gives the "appearance" of a conflict of interest. She also made a failed motion to have the ad hoc committee meet directly with Stanford staff with the goal of working more collaboratively with the university on its General Use Permit (GUP) application.
Jean McCown, Stanford's associate vice president of government and community relations, also told the board Tuesday that depending on the committee's scope, they should "keep an eye on the legal question of conflicts of interest."
The board's vote came after much debate over the committee's role and its membership. As an ad hoc committee, the group will serve in an advisory role and is not a decision-making body; any substantive discussion or decisions would be held with the full board. An ad hoc committee is not subject to the state's Brown Act, so it is not required to notice or hold public meetings. It is not a standing, ongoing committee, and will dissolve when the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors takes a final vote on Stanford's plan, which is expected to happen by early 2019.
Dauber said the proposal for such a committee was made to allow for more timely, structured communication between Superintendent Don Austin and the board on the general use permit.
He rejected the suggestion that he has a conflict of interest in serving on the committee. Dauber had recused himself from previous GUP discussions until this summer, when board member Todd Collins, whose wife also works at Stanford, sought advice from the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), which said it was appropriate for them to participate.
The ad hoc committee is one that "doesn't have a decision-making role, that isn't meeting with the university and that is explicitly required to return to the board if there's any substantive decision," Dauber said. "Given the feedback that the FPPC has provided and the distance between this committee and any actual decision, I don't see a conflict issue."
The committee's formation is set against the larger backdrop of disagreement over the potential impact of Stanford's growth on the school district. As proposed by Stanford, the general use permit calls for building about 2.275 million square feet of new academic space and 3,150 housing units (apartments and student beds) on campus between now and 2035.
But in response to public concerns about insufficient housing, Santa Clara County planners recently added a study of two alternatives that propose more housing units: a total of 5,699 in what's known as Housing Alternative A or 4,425 in Housing Alternative B.
While Stanford estimates the General Use Permit would generate about 275 new students for the school district, the district believes that is a conservative estimate. The county estimated that the alternative with the most housing could bring as many 1,500 students to the district. Some are now speaking out about the financial implications of potentially enrolling hundreds of new students but receiving no additional property tax revenue, as Stanford rental housing is tax-exempt.
Of the board members, Collins has taken the strongest stance against Stanford. He has been making the case in public and private meetings for why Stanford should contribute its "fair share" proportional to how many new students its expansion will generate for the district.
Collins said Tuesday that Stanford has made "misleading" statements about its contributions to the district, including that Stanford's commercial properties generated about $23.8 million for the district last fiscal year. Collins said that according to his own analysis of county tax records, Stanford pays $1.5 million in commercial and residential property taxes to the district, with the remaining amount paid by tenants who ground lease property from Stanford, such as at Stanford Shopping Center or Stanford Research Park.
"As the largest and wealthiest landlord in our district, they've got to do their part," Collins said. "I hope that Ms. McCown and her colleagues will carry the message back to Stanford decision-makers and that Stanford will stop denying the problem and instead start working on how we can address it."
Dauber said he hopes the ad hoc committee will help both institutions "move past philosophical questions about who's responsible for property taxes ... and just realize that if we add students without revenue then we're going to have a lower quality education in Palo Alto for our students and that's not an acceptable outcome."
The board also voted unanimously to authorize DiBrienza to speak with district attorneys about issues related to the General Use Permit. Board bylaw had limited that communication to the board president.
How would the candidates vote?
As part of the Palo Alto Weekly's election coverage, we will be asking the candidates who are running for Palo Alto Board of Education how they would vote -- and why -- on significant issues that the board takes action on before November.
This week, the Weekly asked the five non-incumbent candidates how they would vote on the formation and membership of the ad hoc committee related to the Stanford General Use Permit application.
I would have voted to form the ad hoc committee.
Regarding the membership, I would have voted to amend the motion to include Melissa Baten Caswell and Jennifer DiBrienza. Both Ken Dauber and Todd Collins have spouses employed by Stanford. It is highly likely that they will not negotiate in the best interests of the district, as doing so could negatively impact their spouse's employment or advancement at Stanford. I agree with Baten Caswell that it is likely that the public will perceive this as a conflict. Given that Terry Godfrey is ending her term, and that this ad hoc will extend beyond the end of year, that leaves Baten Caswell and DiBrienza.
I would vote "yes" on the proposal to form an ad hoc committee.
The membership of that committee should be preeminently qualified and report directly to the board. Access to Stanford educational resources is required to achieve excellence in education at PAUSD and to achieve vital district goals such as equity in education for all students. ... Embedding deeply in the Stanford GUP process improves our forecast, our fiscal plan and our impact to Stanford's future direction. PAUSD must be able to influence the governmental oversight of Stanford policy.
I would have voted to form the ad hoc committee.
I would have pressed for Todd Collins to be appointed to it if he was willing. He has shown himself to be the most engaged and the most knowledgeable on the issue, in my opinion, and also the most likely to press to protect the district's interests in this matter. I would only have approved Dauber and DiBrienza to serve on it if Collins refused to serve.
If I were on the board, I would have voted to form an ad hoc committee to work with Austin and legal counsel to establish a dialogue with Stanford regarding the GUP. As for membership, I would have nominated Jennifer DiBrienza and myself. As a litigator, I have experience with negotiations that require a balance between collaboration and strong advocacy -- the exact balance we need here to ensure our students' needs are met.
The amount of time spent on this one agenda item was exorbitant. I think if too much time is being taken and no resolution presents itself, I would vote to table it for another time or do nothing (abstain). In this case, there's already a system in place which is the superintendent is consulting with board members freely. No ad hoc committee is necessary.