The city of Palo Alto and school district's joint effort to redevelop Cubberley Community Center has hit a bump in the road with district officials raising questions about whether the city intends to renew its $5 million lease of the Middlefield Road facility in Palo Alto.
Questions surrounding the lease are the latest indication of the incongruity between the city and school district's desires for redeveloping Cubberley, though the two agencies are engaged in a joint master planning process for the site.
Superintendent Don Austin told board members at a Friday retreat that he has been unable to negotiate an extension of the lease, which expires at the end of the year, with city staff. He had at one point discussed with city staff a two-year extension, which was later reduced to one year, then six months and "most recently, it was taken off the table staff to staff," he said.
Board members suggested that the city is using the soon-to-expire lease as "leverage" in talks with the district. They asked staff about the reassessing value of the property and the possibility of looking for new tenants, if necessary.
"To want to hold these public uses and the benefits to Palo Alto citizens hostage as leverage in discussions between the city and school district just makes no sense," said board member Ken Dauber. "I hope they reconsider that course."
City Manager Ed Shikada told the Weekly that he thought there had been miscommunication with the district on the lease extension and that "the city has been clear that we want to continue supporting community use of the Cubberley property.
"At the same time, the city has spent millions of dollars repairing facilities that should be replaced as they have been used far beyond their intended life, so we want to ensure that further investments in the property will have lasting value," he said.
The district owns 27 acres in the 35-acre campus and leases them to the city, which owns the other 8 acres. In March 2016, former Superintendent Max McGee and former City Manager James Keene signed a new lease that calls for the completion of a master plan for Cubberley by Dec. 31, 2019. A draft master plan, created after a monthslong "co-design" process that started last fall, includes proposals for more green space, a new gym and performing arts center, a future school and four different options for housing at Cubberley.
The City Council discussed the lease in closed session on Aug. 5 but took no reportable action, according to meeting minutes. Mayor Eric Filseth did not respond to questions for this article by the Weekly's deadline.
Shikada said the City Council has directed him to "engage with the district on (an) extension of the lease, with terms that continue progress on the master planning effort that PAUSD and the City have jointly undertaken. We have made major progress through our community process, and would like to reflect this in the lease extension."
At a meeting of the City/School Liaison Committee on Thursday, council members Lydia Kou and Alison Cormack declined to discuss the lease because it was not agendized.
Friday's retreat marked the school board's first formal discussion of the draft master plan. A majority of the board reiterated that they are in no rush to build any school facilities on the district-owned land but do want to preserve land for a potential secondary school in the future.
"I think we can be great neighbors. We can swap land, we can move boundaries ... but what I don't think we can be partners in is financing and paying for new facilities that we don't know if and when we're ever going to need," said Vice President Todd Collins.
Dauber also said that the district should be willing to reconfigure the city's 8 acres or expand it by doing a land swap for other land in Palo Alto but that " the idea that somehow we're going to be fully joint development partners with facilities that are going to be built that don't have an educational purpose — I just don't think that's going to happen."
"I think it's really important that it be clear to the city that that's not going to happen," he said.
Board member Shounak Dharap, however, advocated for a more proactive stance on Cubberley. Even if the district doesn't want to build a school now, that shouldn't preclude exploring its other interests at Cubberley, including moving the district office there and building teacher housing, he said.
"I don't think we can split up the city's portion and our portion and say ... 'we're going to take our time,'" Dharap said. "My thought is we really should move forward with the city on this."
A majority of board members voiced support for building teacher housing at an adjacent, district-owned site at 525 San Antonio Road. The draft master plan proposed in different alternatives building 32 to 64 units for district staff and teachers at 525 San Antonio Road. Several board members said they'd like to see options for even denser housing there, which would require rezoning.
Collins said he's "a big fan of teacher housing if we have the need" but questioned whether that need has been demonstrated, asking for further study of the issue.
The board and city council were tentatively scheduled to hold a joint meeting on Cubberley in October. Several board members said they're uninterested in participating at the moment in what they believed would be an unproductive meeting.
At Thursday's City/School Liaison Committee meeting, Austin said staff from both agencies are having difficulty setting the agenda for a meeting for which there is no "clearly defined purpose." He suggested forming an ad hoc committee of board and council members to "frame up what that session will look like" and potentially, discuss the lease agreement.
"What we appear to be stuck on at the moment is the question of how to reconcile the various goals the district and city have for the property," Shikada told the Weekly. "The next step really needs to be a focused joint effort to articulate these goals and agree on a path forward. I'm pretty sure our goals are not mutually exclusive, but this will require direct communication."
In other business at Friday's retreat, the school board discussed in detail Austin's three-year plan, the "PAUSD Promise." They reviewed and gave feedback on 12 high-level goals for this school year, from improving instruction and support for students with dyslexia and adopting curriculum aligned with the state's Next Generation Science Standards to tightening school safety procedures.
The goals represent an estimated $1.2 million in funding, some of which has already been allocated, will be reallocated or is an additional ask, Austin said. The district's new chief business official will bring back a more specific funding request for this year's budget, he said.
Austin said that this year, performance evaluations for senior leadership — including his own, if the board decides — will include progress made on the plan.
"We expect to be held accountable to these goals," he said.