Despite the rise in interest in building affordable housing for teachers and staff in school districts across the Bay Area, Palo Alto Unified trustees signaled on Tuesday they have little appetite for pursuing such a project at the moment.
Staff had asked the board for direction on whether to take the next step of launching a feasibility study with a site assessment, financial analysis and other elements. Bond Program Manager Bob Golton presented local examples of districts that have built or are building employee housing, including the Jefferson Union High School District in northern San Mateo County, which he called "our case study." The 4,800-student district is building a 122-unit, $61 million development to address high turnover and difficulty hiring staff.
"Color me skeptical," board member Ken Dauber said about the need to build teacher housing in Palo Alto. "There's a motivation question. Jefferson Union had apparently and has apparently a pretty serious recruitment and retention problem that motivates their interest in this project and their willingness to undergo the cost. I don't believe that we have a similar problem so don't have that motivation."
If teacher recruitment and retention are a problem locally, he said he'd prefer to examine a range of solutions before jumping to one that is as complex and costly as building housing.
Vice President Todd Collins said that conceptually, teacher housing is a "good thing" but would come at too great of a financial, time and attention cost to the district, absent of any "pressing need" to address teacher retention.
However, that could change, he said, and the district should watch closely how other local projects progress in case it decides to build housing.
"At this point, in the calculus of where we should spend our time ... this doesn't feel like the next big thing we should invest in," Collins said.
Board member Shounak Dharap said he is supportive of teacher housing but wanted staff to further study three points: whether there's evidence that having teachers live closer to where they work directly impacts student engagement and wellbeing; the feasibility of taking on such a project for staff; and possible funding models. None of the other board members present (Melissa Baten Caswell was absent) expressed support for this direction to staff.
When Board President Jennifer DiBrienza was a public school teacher, shorter commutes made her a "different teacher," she said. It allowed her to attend evening events and have a better work-life balance. But even she wasn't explicitly supportive of moving forward, instead saying that "we've done a lot of our homework in understanding our current state and the possibilities" and keeping in mind that "that could change over time."
Though Palo Alto Unified won't be building its own workforce housing any time soon, the district is still involved in a county-led project for regional teachers and staff at 231 Grant Ave. in Palo Alto. The project recently received an injection of support with a $25 million donation from Facebook that will increase the number of units that can be built and districts the site can serve.
Collins said the county development is a way for the district to "learn something without the investment and distraction" of building and managing its own housing. "We invest a little but we learn a lot."
The district is also in the midst of drafting with the City of Palo Alto a new lease for Cubberley Community Center, including a provision that by 2021, the district will submit an application to develop housing at 525 San Antonio Road, which is adjacent to Cubberley but not technically included in the master plan for the site, or notify the city that district will not pursue housing in the near term there, under the proposed lease terms.
School districts throughout the Bay Area are either considering or moving forward with teacher housing projects, including the Mountain View Whisman School District, San Francisco Unified School District, San Mateo High School District, Santa Clara County Office of Education, Eastside High School District and San Jose Unified School District.