Palo Alto Unified School District leaders on Tuesday lauded a proposed agreement between the district and Stanford University — a deal that includes an estimated $140 million in benefits from Stanford to the district as well as a provision that threatens to upend the entire approval process for the university's expansion plan, rendering the benefits package moot.
The agreement, which followed months of on-again, off-again negotiations and which the district and Stanford released Monday night, commits the university to paying between $5,800 and $8,450 for each new student that Stanford's growth plan would bring to the local system, as well as $15 million for a new "innovative space" that would be shared by the two institutions and a $500,000 contribution for transportation improvements near schools. These benefits, however, are conditioned on Santa Clara County approving a development agreement with Stanford — a condition that county Supervisor Joe Simitian said violates the county's ground rules for negotiations with Stanford.
The provision prompted Simitian and county staff to immediately suspend its planned talks with Stanford over a development agreement, a document that was intended to spell out the conditions that Stanford would have to meet and the community benefits it would have to provide to secure the county's approval of a new General Use Permit (GUP). Once approved, the new GUP will allow Stanford to build 2.275 million square feet of new academic space, 40,000 square feet of child care space and other support facilities and more than 3,000 housing units and beds (the exact number has yet to be determined) by 2035.
For Simitian, the primary problem with the new agreement is its requirement that the county approve a development agreement before any of the school benefits would materialize. This, he told the Weekly, effectively allows Stanford to use Palo Alto students as a "bargaining chip" in development-agreement negotiations and give it leverage to get out of other conditions pertaining to traffic, housing and open space protection.
But while the county's position on the school agreement creates a new obstacle for Stanford in its quest to win approval for its expansion plan, Palo Alto's school officials had few reservations and many words of praise for the university's proposal, which followed a two-day negotiation session.
Superintendent Don Austin told the Board of Education on Tuesday that he is excited about the agreement with Stanford, despite "some bumps and some challenges." He also said he was surprised by the county's decision to suspend negotiations with Stanford.
"That would be unfortunate," Austin said. "Personally, I would hope that everyone would have opportunities to have conversations — that conversations wouldn't be stopped before they started.
"If that was the case, we wouldn't be here today," he said, alluding to the school district's own talks with Stanford, which resurged in recent weeks after a protracted stalemate.
Jean McCown, Stanford's associate vice president for government and community relations, said the provision that ties school benefits to the county's approval of the development agreement is necessary to provide long-term consistency and certainty for Stanford over the duration of the GUP's term. The university, she said, is prepared to provide benefits to the school district well in advance of Stanford's academic build-out. In exchange, Stanford requires the "financial and regulatory certainty" that would be created by the county's development agreement.
McCown also stressed that Stanford remains committed to negotiating an agreement with the county and suggested that its new deal with the Palo Alto school district "helps set the stage for an even more positive discussion with the county."
"We have not taken any issues off the table, including open space, traffic and affordable housing," McCown said, adding that the university intends to abide by all the mitigation measures recommended by final Environmental Impact Report for the proposed expansion.
"We remain confident we will reach an agreement with the county that will be beneficial to all involved, including our neighboring community," she said.
While board members had some questions about the condition that ties school benefits to county approval, their concerns were outweighed by excitement over Stanford's proposed benefits. Austin noted that under state law, the district would only be entitled to $4.2 million in school-mitigation fees from Stanford, an amount that is well below the $138 million in total benefits that Stanford is now offering. He called the new deal "a very strong proposal," an assessment that the school board broadly shared.
"It seems to me the agreement really results in benefits of great value to our students," board member Shounak Dharap said.
Dharap noted the county's concerns but said he was confident that the negotiations between Stanford and the county will get back on track.
"Our own negotiations with Stanford were suspended or stalled for a period of time," Dharap said. "That's just the way with negotiations — there's an ebb and flow to it."
Board President Jennifer DiBrienza said she was "thrilled" about the district's recent progress with Stanford and "very grateful" to Stanford for truly considering its growth impacts. While she said she would be interested in learning more about the county's concerns, she lauded Stanford for coming to the table and proposing mitigations for its expansion plans.
"I'm really optimistic Stanford is going to do the same thing for the rest of the community — laying out what is fair for traffic, and housing and everything else," DiBrienza said.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell also said she was optimistic that all parties can "work together and come to a conclusion and agreements that work for all of us."
"Our hope is that the county will open up discussion again with Stanford because it seems to me that's the only way we're going to move forward here," Caswell said.
The three participating board members did not vote on the agreement, which they plan to discuss further at a future meeting before potentially approving it. Board member Ken Dauber and Vice President Todd Collins were both recused because each has a spouse who works at Stanford.