Three Palo Alto school board members voted on Tuesday night to suspend consideration of a tentative agreement with Stanford University related to its proposed campus expansion, voicing disappointment that a deal they had celebrated a month ago is no longer moving forward.
Moments later, the two board members who had recused themselves from the vote because their spouses work at Stanford returned to the dais to comment on the agreement, one levying sharp criticisms at Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian for his role in the fallout.
Ken Dauber said that Simitian "killed" the district's tentative agreement with Stanford, which would have provided Palo Alto Unified with $138 million over 40 years to offset the burden of additional students in new Stanford housing who would enroll in the district.
The April 15 public announcement of the agreement, which was conditional on the approval of a development agreement between the county and Stanford, prompted Simitian to suspend development-agreement negotiations.
Simitian called the district's proposed deal with the university "regrettable," saying that Stanford would use it as a bargaining chip in talks with the county — talks meant to decide on benefits and concessions that Stanford would provide in exchange for the county's approval of the university's permit to expand development on campus.
"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 on April 16.
But Dauber criticized that characterization.
"I was astonished when Supervisor Simitian, instead of proceeding with that negotiation to try to secure those benefits for the community, decided instead to kill this agreement," Dauber said. "If the end result is that our students get less, then I think Supervisor Simitian will inevitably be blamed — and properly, in my opinion."
When asked to respond to Dauber's comments, Simitian said, "I'm sure we all want the best outcome for the kids in this district."
Much of the conflict over the agreement hangs on four pages of ground rules agreed to by Stanford and the county for development-agreement negotiations (which had not yet started by the time Simitian halted them). The rules allowed Stanford to talk with the district or other third parties but prohibited the university from "engaging in discussions resulting in a deal ... that would be presented as a proposal during the negotiations period," which was set to end on April 15 — the day the school district and Stanford issued press releases detailing their agreement, raising questions about the transparency of talks that had led up to that announcement.
Dauber defended the district's actions on Tuesday, insisting that the ground rules permit an agreement like the one struck after April 15.
"The district took great care to observe those ground rules," he said.
Simitian declined to state whether the county or Stanford had suggested extending the April 15 deadline. Development agreement negotiations had not yet begun because the county's full conditions of approval for Stanford's application have not been released.
Dauber criticized the Weekly for creating the impression in a recent news article and editorial that the board had violated the ground rules and California open-meeting law the Brown Act in reaching the agreement with Stanford before the deadline. From January through April 16, the board agendized several closed-session discussions as anticipated litigation related to the "Stanford University General Use Permit Environmental Impact Report."
Board members have insisted that this language was permissible given they had considered suing the county over its environmental-impact report on Stanford's application. Stanford would have been an "interested party" in the potential litigation against the county, and the district's deal with Stanford was in fact a "settlement agreement," board members have said.
Emails released to the Weekly under a Public Records Act, however, indicate the board discussed the tentative Stanford agreement in substance in a special meeting closed to the public on April 10. Superintendent Don Austin sent board members a draft agreement on April 9 in preparation for the meeting, writing, "Our plan is to go through the agreement tomorrow to gather your feedback and insights."
Talks had broken down between the district and Stanford for most of the last year, but they had agreed to return to the table in early March for confidential negotiations, which took place over March 28 and 29.
Dauber made his comments on Tuesday in spite of recusing himself from deliberations on the topic on prior occasions. He at first recused himself from previous general-use permit discussions until last summer, when Collins sought advice from the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC), which said it was appropriate for them to participate.
Dauber then recused himself from the board's two April meetings on the permit application because, he said in previous interviews, discussions shifted into direct negotiations with Stanford rather than the county over its environmental-impact report. Collins recused himself from the board's April 16 special meeting for the same reasons.
Because his colleagues voted to suspend action on the agreement with Stanford on Tuesday, Dauber said he reasoned that he was again allowed to participate.
Collins said Tuesday he agreed with Dauber's overall comments and added briefly that the district has done an "exceptionally" good job at focusing on serving current and future students.
"We can't afford to get tired or get distracted. We have done a good job of establishing our need and done a good job of establishing with Stanford that they need to meet our needs," he said.
Austin said he was heartened to see a Stanford spokesperson quoted in a May 12 Stanford Daily article stating the university's commitment to "providing PAUSD with the benefits in our conditional agreement" through the development-agreement process.
"I thought that was a pretty bold statement to put in the paper," Austin said. "I'm confident Stanford is going to honor the work that we did together in good faith."
Board member Shounak Dharap said he didn't see "any other option but to support this tentative agreement" given that the district's pleas for funding from Stanford fell on deaf ears for most of the last year.
"If that meant Stanford was going to be able to use us as leverage against the county then I'm sorry, but, again, it's better in my opinion to have at least some assurances or potential assurances for what we can give our students than to have a vague promise of really nothing, of some unenumerated benefits in the future," he said.
Stanford's request to withdraw its agreement with the district came on the heels of the university asking the Santa Clara County Planning Commission to postpone three upcoming hearings on the permit application, citing concerns about the feasibility of conditions of approval that will be imposed on the application; the draft of those conditions was released by the county in March. The county responded on Friday, however, that it is still moving forward with these hearings, which start on May 30 in Palo Alto.
In previous interviews, Simitian said that he and Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who were on the county's development agreement negotiations team, met with Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Vice President Bob Reidy in early May and told them that the county would be willing to reopen talks if they are open to the public and guarantee the same benefits to the Palo Alto school district that had been negotiated. Several days later, Simitian said, Tessier-Lavigne and Reidy responded that they wished the negotiations to be in private and proposed lesser benefits to the district, which Simitian said would be unacceptable.
Jade Chao, the president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, which helped organize much of the public advocacy on the general-use permit, told the school board Tuesday that she and other parents were "terribly disappointed" that the agreement has been suspended and that they will continue to press Stanford for full mitigation of its impacts.
She urged the board to focus not on the politics of the moment but the reasons that brought the district to this point.
"Whatever is happening in the background or the foreground, on the front burner or the back burner, please, please, just remember our kids," she said, "now and in the years to come."