After years of uncertainty and community brainstorming, the Palo Alto Unified School District is closing in on a plan for its portion of Cubberley Community Center, the rundown 35-acre former high school in south Palo Alto that's partly owned by the district and partly owned by the city.
Under a broad plan laid out at a Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Oct. 19, the district would reserve roughly 20 acres for a theoretical future high school and use the land in the much more immediate term to temporarily house two elementary schools while their campuses are under construction. The district would be open to negotiations about transferring part or all of the remaining 7 acres to the city of Palo Alto.
Cubberley's fate was discussed as part of a wide-ranging presentation on Tuesday that involved various elements of the district's facility plans, including staff housing and elementary school construction projects.
Board members expressed support for reserving space for a high school at Cubberley. The board also backed fully rebuilding Hoover Elementary School, rather than a more limited renovation, and participating in a planned teacher housing project in Palo Alto for school staff that Santa Clara County is leading.
No formal action was taken at Tuesday's meeting, with the various pieces discussed expected to come back to the board for formal votes at future meetings.
The 35-acre Cubberley Community Center site at 4000 Middlefield Road has been the subject of long-running and at times contentious discussions between the city, which owns 8 acres, and the school district, which owns the remaining 27. The two bodies engaged a consultant to lead a lengthy, collaborative effort to plan the redesign of Cubberley in 2018 and 2019, but that master plan was ultimately shelved. The city currently rents a portion of the district's land through a 54-month lease approved last year.
Superintendent Don Austin said that the various plans presented to the board on Tuesday are "totally interdependent," with each relying on the others.
"This has more moving parts than moving my San Diego Chargers up to Los Angeles," Austin quipped. "This thing is just loaded — loaded with parts."
No members of the public addressed the board at Tuesday's meeting and board member Ken Dauber was absent.
While the district wants to retain enough space at Cubberley for a future high school, board members supported moving away from plans to put staff housing or the district office on the site.
Any decision about actually building a high school at Cubberley is still very far off, Austin stressed, adding that the current board members will be termed out and he will be retired by that point.
"It's not even a twinkle in our eye to build that school," said board member Todd Collins, who supported saving the space so a future board could make the decision when the time comes.
Board member Jesse Ladomirak similarly backed the plan to retain 20 acres, while also working with the city to transfer some of the remaining acreage, so Palo Alto has sufficient space to build a new community center. According to Ladomirak, the age and condition of the buildings at Cubberley are such that modernization is "totally infeasible" and the district can't pass a bond to fund construction on the site without concrete plans for a specific school.
"If we can't rebuild it, what's important is making sure the city can, so it can continue to be used by our community, and by our families and our students," Ladomirak said.
Board President Shounak Dharap said that by no longer looking to place the district office or staff housing at Cubberley, but instead just saving space for a potential school, there is more room to work with the city to reach a deal about the land.
"I'm very optimistic and I'm very enthusiastic about the recommendation," Dharap said.
Instead of looking to build housing for teachers and other school staff at Cubberley, the board signaled continued support for participating in a multidistrict staff at 231 Grant Ave. that is being led by Santa Clara County and backed by Supervisor Joe Simitian.
Current plans call for the district to contribute $1.45 million and get 29 units for its staff, which would be a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom spaces, according to information that plan developers presented to the school board on Tuesday. That's up from the 12 units that the district would have gotten under earlier plans.
The units would be available to any district employee, subject to income limits and a lottery system.
Elementary school construction
While building a high school at Cubberley may be decades away, the board on Tuesday supported a much more imminent plan to use the land as a temporary school site over the next few years.
Palo Verde Elementary School would move to Cubberley next school year while its campus is renovated and then Hoover would be housed at Cubberley for the following two school years.
"If we're going this direction, we don't have a lot of time to talk about it for months and months," Austin said. "We would need to start on Cubberley very, very soon to get that going in a positive direction."
Board members supported plans to use Cubberley as a temporary campus, which Director of Facilities and Construction Eric Holm said "dramatically changes the speed at which we can build."
By moving students off of the Palo Verde campus during construction, the project is expected to take a single year, rather than two and a half, Holm said.
The board also supported razing and rebuilding Hoover, rather than an earlier plan to do a more limited renovation on the site. According to Holm, anything short of a full redo of Hoover's campus would still leave it as the site most in need of work.
The plan the board supported is expected to have a total cost of $73 million, compared with $57 million for the more limited renovation.