Citing significant concerns about Stanford University's newly announced deal with the Palo Alto Unified School District, Santa Clara County on Tuesday suspended indefinitely its negotiations with the university over a development agreement that would have governed Stanford's proposed expansion.
The county's decision to suspend the negotiations came just hours after the university and the school district administration announced a "school funding and mitigation agreement" under which Stanford would pay the district more than $120 million to account for the university's expansion and its projected impact on Palo Alto Unified enrollment. The agreement also called for Stanford to invest $15 million in a shared facility on district property and obligated the school district not to oppose any development that Stanford is proposing under the 2018 General Use Permit, a document that the county is now in the midst of approving.
Both district Superintendent Don Austin and Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne lauded the agreement on Monday, with Austin calling it a "model of what is possible" and Tessier-Lavigne praising it for making Stanford's engagement in the Palo Alto school system "more systematic and organized."
At the same time, all the benefits in the proposed deal come with a critical condition that Simitian sees as a poison pill. It hinges on the county's approval of a "development agreement" with Stanford — a broad and wide-ranging contract that is expected to include conditions for Stanford to mitigate traffic impacts, preserving open space and providing other community benefits. In exchange, the county would allow Stanford to move ahead with its expansion plan, which includes 2.275 million new square feet of academic space and 40,000 square feet of child care space and other support facilities.
Stanford had also proposed including 2,600 student beds and 550 faculty and staff housing units in its plan, though the county indicated last month that it wants the university to provide at least 2,172 units of faculty and staff housing, along with 2,600 student beds.
Simitian told the Weekly that county staff was finalizing its "conditions of approval" for Stanford's proposed expansion, which were due to be finalized on April 30 and which were supposed to pave the way for development-agreement negotiations between the county and Stanford. The Monday announcement of a separate deal between Stanford and the school district upended that plan by creating a situation in which Palo Alto students are used as "bargaining chips" by Stanford, Simitian said.
He called the newly announced deal "regrettable." Because the agreement depends on the county's approval of the development agreement, which is now "suspended indefinitely," it effectively offers no benefits to the district, Simitian said. He also said the tentative deal, which the school board is scheduled to discuss at a special meeting on Tuesday evening, violates the ground rules that the county and Stanford had established for their development agreement negotiations. The rules specified that negotiations pertaining to the development agreement would only take place between the county's negotiating committee (which includes Simitian and Supervisor Cindy Chavez) and negotiating team and Stanford's negotiating committee and negotiating team.
"Unfortunately, the school district thinks it actually got something when it didn't — that's the crux of the matter," Simitian said. "Not only is there really no benefit to the board as it is structured, but it raises the potential concern about school kids in Palo Alto being used as a bargaining chip in respect to other important issues like housing, traffic and open space protection."
He said the county has no issues with the district and Stanford reaching bilateral agreements over mitigations. But by tying the benefits to the county's approval of a development agreement, Stanford is effectively forcing the county to go into development agreement negotiations "with a gun to our heads," something that Simitian said neither he nor his colleagues are prepared to do.
"What we're faced with now is, in what purports to be an agreement, is a pretty explicit threat: if you don't back off on expectations of traffic mitigations and open space protections, we won't honor our commitment that we made to the school kids in Palo Alto. That's not a good-faith effort."
Simitian said he had discussed his concerns two weeks ago with Austin, who had assured him that the district's deal with Stanford will not be contingent on the county's approval of the Stanford development agreement. But Simitian, a former Palo Alto Unified board member, also said he believes everyone in the school district was "well-intended and doing the best they could under difficult circumstances."
"As a former member of school board, I get the anxiety," Simitian said. "I think they were so anxious to get a deal that they took a non-deal and thought it was a deal. What they got now is not a deal. It's a pretense of a deal."
Simitian said that at this point, the county has no plans to start up conversations over a development agreement.
Jean McCown, Stanford's associate vice president for government and community relations, told the Weekly on Tuesday that the university has not been informed by the county or by Simitian about the suspension of the development-agreement process.
"We are surprised by such a decision because Supervisor Simitian and the county had actively encouraged us to engage with PAUSD as part of these negotiations, and we believe this discussion is not in violation of the ground rules for the development agreement process," McCown said in an email.
Stanford, she said, "has long maintained that a development agreement is essential to support the provision of community benefits such as those proposed to the school district in our agreement."
"In exchange for those community benefits, the development agreement provides Stanford with long-term certainty in support of its future plans," McCown wrote. "We look forward to entering into substantive negotiations to reach a mutually agreed upon project and package of community benefits."