East Palo Alto City Council approves new site for The Primary School

Council members express some concern about the cost of private and charter schools' growth for public school district

The East Palo Alto City Council voted 4-0 on Tuesday to advance a request from The Primary School to build a new campus at 1200 Weeks St. for the private K-8 school started by Priscilla Chan.

Vice Mayor Regina Wallace-Jones recused herself because she lives near the project.

The Primary School, which is currently located at 951 O'Connor St. near the Ravenswood 101 shopping center, plans to accommodate more than 600 students and 70 staff members in a 61,000-square-foot building.

They anticipate enrolling 96 preschool students, 300 elementary school students, 115 middle school students and 150 students in a part-time infant-toddler program.

Assuming the school would open in summer 2021, the school would gradually grow grade levels over the next four years.

About 243 children from East Palo Alto and Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood are enrolled this year at the school, which Chan launched three years ago with the belief that merging education with health and support services would dramatically improve outcomes for high-need children.

"We are grateful for the work that the Planning Commission and the City Council are doing on behalf of this community, and thank them for thoroughly reviewing our proposal and asking important questions," Primary School CEO Courtney Garcia said in a statement to the Weekly. "We look forward to moving into the next stage of building a facility that houses infant-toddler, parent, early childhood, and school-aged programs that can provide a long-term benefit for the broader community."

As planned, the new campus just east of Pulgas Avenue would have a two-story main building, 24 classrooms, a 10,800-square-foot gymnasium and several play yards and recreation areas. Some space, including but not limited to the gym, would be designated for community use, according to a staff report.

In approving permits and other actions to allow the project to proceed, the City Council added two conditions. The Primary School must create a "robust" transportation management plan (TDM) that would include enforcement, including significant penalties for violations of the plan. The council must approve the plan before issuing a building permit.

The Primary School plans to have staggered start times to minimize the early morning and afternoon traffic, according to a staff report.

The school also plans to invest about $1.6 million in traffic and street improvements, including building a sidewalk on the northern side of Runnymede Street to improve safety for pedestrians and kids walking to school.

"These represent some of the largest improvements to traffic and street improvements ever made by a school in East Palo Alto," staff wrote in a report.

Prior to issuing a building permit, the council will review, revise and approve construction-valuation figures that guide an in-lieu payment to the city. Council members, in particular, Carlos Romero, questioned the existing figures, which don't take into consideration a 12% per year or more construction cost increase on which the in-lieu fees are based.

Council members applauded the innovative Primary School, which they said they hope will be a model for other schools throughout the country. But Romero and Mayor Lisa Gauthier voiced concerns that growing the school will further erode funding for the Ravenswood City School District, which is struggling with sharp enrollment declines and the loss of dollars attached to those students.

Ravenswood currently enrolls about 2,400 students.

Romero noted that while the tuition-free Primary School offers on-site wrap-around services, including dental and mental health services, public school students won't have access to the same quality of education, and the loss of revenue could make their educations even more unequal. This problem is not only caused by The Primary School but by other private and charter schools in the community, the council noted.

Councilman Larry Moody said that people want choices, so The Primary School is an important component of the educational ecosystem in East Palo Alto. He said he hopes that The Primary School would work with the Ravenswood district to share some of its innovative ideas that would help improve and equalize education for all students. With those and other improvements, he said he is hopeful that more people will want to keep their children in East Palo Alto schools rather than busing them out through the Voluntary Transfer Program, or Tinsley program, for example.

"Education should always be the convening place of a community," he said.

Councilman Ruben Abrica noted that some residents living near the 3.5-acre undeveloped site are concerned about hazardous-materials emissions during excavation and construction. The site is near the old Romic chemical plant, which created an underground hazardous-materials plume that spread off-site.

Wallace-Jones, for her part, wrote in a Facebook post that she is not comfortable with the potential emissions during excavation and construction and wants the city to pay for her family to relocate to another home during construction. The comment later appeared to be deleted.

City staff said that adequate safeguards will be in place and are built into the plan. While assessments show that if nothing was done, certain levels of cancer-causing chemicals would be above the threshold for "sensitive receptor uses," such as children and housing. The applicant plans to remove the contamination and haul it away so that the site will be at safe levels.

Residents also raised concerns about dust and rodent control during construction at recent Planning Commission meetings, according to the staff report. All of the work would be overseen by the Regional Quality Control Board, which would make sure dust isn't generated by the project. If dust was found to be created, corrections would quickly be made, construction would halt or other measures would be taken until the problem was fixed.

Assistant City Manager Sean Charpentier said as a condition of approval, the property's deed restriction due to the contamination won't be removed until the remediation is complete.

Long term, The Primary School is aiming to open three to five schools in the Bay Area, including a new campus opening in Hayward in 2020.


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1 person likes this
Posted by Ellen
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 21, 2019 at 3:59 pm

East Palo Alto desperately needs a public high school. Right now, students are distributed among neighboring school districts. Often, they cannot participate in after-school activities because they may not have transport back to EPA later, after the school buses leave. Their friends at school live in another district. Instead they return home to a community with very little organized activities for them to do. Dr Chan would do well to consider helping develop local, public education.

2 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Jun 21, 2019 at 9:21 pm

Ellen - I think you need to check your facts about everything you posted. Have a great weekend!

1 person likes this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jun 22, 2019 at 6:24 pm

What I don't understand is why anyone would want to build a school on top of a hazardous waste dump. No matter how much remediation you do, people will always have questions about their children's heath in the back of their minds. Every child that develops any symptoms will blame it on the school. The lawsuits will be endless.

And then 30 years from now, when the students are adults and develop some disease someone will blame it on the years that they spent on top of a former hazardous waste site.

Why doesn't Priscilla Chan buy up some more houses on the block where she and Mark Zuckerberg live and build the school there?


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