Guest Opinion: Flaws in school-improvement planning process jeopardize outcomes | May 29, 2009 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 29, 2009

Guest Opinion: Flaws in school-improvement planning process jeopardize outcomes

by Kirsten Essenmacher

In these difficult economic times, our Palo Alto Unified School District is in the enviable position of having $378 million to spend on site improvements.

These funds, which include $98 million for Paly and $74 million for Gunn, come courtesy of Measure A, approved by district voters in June 2008.

Prior to Measure A, the most recent bond passed by voters for district site improvements was the $143 million bond Measure B passed in 1995, known as Building for Excellence , or B4E. Although our schools eventually benefited significantly from B4E, this bond was plagued by serious management problems in the beginning, wasting both time and money.

As we approach Measure A's first anniversary, we as Palo Alto taxpayers and parents should take time to evaluate both the progress and quality of oversight of this new bond-funded capital-improvement program.

The progress of this new program has been rapid, accelerated in the rush of enthusiasm for long-overdue improvements. For example, on March 31, after a five-month process, the school board approved master plans for both Paly and Gunn, thereby allowing the building-design process to move forward.

But what about the quality of these plans? How many parents really know what they propose as the future of our high schools?

My two children are young, the oldest just entering school, but decisions made now will determine the high school they will attend.

To ensure the best possible campus for students now and decades into the future, a master plan should strive to meet the needs of the school's academic and extracurricular programs while still accommodating numerous campus-wide and long-range concerns.

A superior design can only be achieved through an outstanding decision-making process that relies on careful analysis of a wide variety of diverse and independent ideas.

Watching this process evolve, I have serious concerns about flaws that could undermine the end product. Let's take a closer look at the decision-making process that led to Paly's new master plan, which will underlie $178 million in site improvements over 20 years.

The Paly facilities steering committee, which proposed the Paly master plan and was chaired by the principal, was composed primarily of 10 Paly teachers and department heads. It contained one parent, hand-picked by the principal, and one student, a sophomore.

An architect hired by the district took direction from the committee. Committee members were unquestionably dedicated, but because they nearly all report to the principal and work together, there were significant incentives for them to go along and get along.

The committee notably did not include any architects, landscape architects, construction professionals or urban planners from the community. There were no experts in finance, sustainability issues, historic preservation or transportation, including high-speed rail.

There were no retired teachers or administrators, staff from other schools or parents from the parent-teacher-student associations.

Not having independent, diverse members on the committee may have unduly biased decisions toward the principal's personal preferences, departmental over campus-wide needs, and short-term over long-term concerns. I say "may" because the early meetings were not open to the public, hence only participants know.

Compounding the inherent limitations of the committee is a weak commitment to transparency and a weak oversight process.

Allowing the public to participate in government meetings is an important oversight mechanism in our democracy. Yet citizens were not invited to committee meetings until the fourth meeting of nine, on Dec 17. At the end of the meetings to which the public was invited, community members were allowed to speak for three minutes each. But there was no designated community liaison to follow-up with the speakers to answer questions and ensure their concerns were being addressed.

Two evening "community" meetings were overview reports from the architect.

In addition, the Paly facilities website, which lists the minutes of meetings, is inadequate. It does not include a description of how individual departments will be affected by the improvements. It does not describe how campus-wide and long-range issues (such as high-speed rail, sustainability and the possible re-opening of Cubberley as a high school) are being factored into the planning process.

It does not include cost/benefit analyses so we can understand how decisions were made. It also lacks a place for people to ask questions or provide suggestions.

Furthermore, the public was not welcomed to meet individually with steering committee members. For example, in early March I as a community member signed in at the main office for a pre-arranged meeting with a teacher to discuss the master plan. The principal confronted me and demanded to know the purpose of the meeting.

The principal subsequently said that it could be problematic for community members to meet with steering committee members and asked to be cc'd on all e-mail between the public and members of the committee.

Another problem was inadequate advertising of meetings in local newspapers and district e-news. E-mail invitations were limited to parents of eighth graders and above, even though the first beneficiaries of the projects will be primarily younger children.

In addition to the above deep flaws in the planning process, the Measure A citizen's oversight committee has no authority to oversee campus design. And because the school board cedes full operational control of campuses to principals, the board cannot suggest where individual departments should be located, even when those decisions bear directly on if, where and how to construct multi-million-dollar taxpayer-funded buildings.

District officials from the very top down should review the planning work to date and improve the process to ensure there is a collaborative openness with strong citizen oversight, not a closed system of controlled decision-making that will create lasting scars and increase the risk of major mistakes — such as happened with B4E.

Otherwise, Palo Altans may get school campuses that are less functional, less beautiful and more costly than they deserve to be.

Kirsten Essenmacher is a 1987 graduate of Paly. She has a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University and worked in the biotech industry from 1999 to 2004, when she quit to raise a family. She is now involved in environmental and community activities. She can be e-mailed at


Posted by Anne Knight, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 3, 2009 at 9:14 am

Essenmacher's remarks resonate with me. School facilities are costly and, once constructed, may be permanent. Consequently, facilities planning merits careful considertion by experts, not merely by teachers whose expertise, after all, is neither architecture, landscaping, nor facilities planning. Experts in these areas would be able to identify opportunities for creating campuses that are functional and beautiful for many years, and, hence, also cost-effective. Ignoring such expertise is all too likely to result in missed opportunities, less-than-optimal design and siting, and premature obsolescence of facilities.

Fortunately, Palo Alto residents not only highly value education but also comprise diverse professionals willing to contribute their expertise to the PAUSD facilities planning process. Currently, the Facilities Steering Committee includes a single parent and single student, and the committee's deliberations, intentionally or not, have not been transparent.

Before any plans are final, the Steering Committee should encourage experts in the relevant areas to volunteer their expertise and expand the committee to include them.
Rather than hurry to reach consensus, it would be wiser to consider diverse ideas and opinions and carefully weigh pro's and con's of alternative strategies. The result is likely to be one that will leave Palo Alto students, faculty, and residents satisfied instead of sorry.

Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 3, 2009 at 9:38 am

By contrast, I find little of value in this guest opinion other than it is yet another example of the "Palo Alto" approach of delaying and arguing, extreme, laughable nitpicking, to no end. I see little of substance in this piece.
I haven't seen anything wrong with the decision-making process. Paly is referenced; I followed the action as a previous Paly parent and I am comfortable that the process is going just fine.
Everyone here feels entitled to get their two cents' worth of opinion in to the detriment of a reasonable planning process.

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 3, 2009 at 9:51 am

The facilities plan is being done professionally by an architectural firm, the staff is not designing it, nor are students or parents. Just like designing a house, functional input is gathered from the people who will "live" there (staff and teachers, the students are there for a much shorter time), designs are presented and adjusted. Assuming the district hired competent, creative architects, they will come up good ideas.

Posted by concerned parent, a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 3, 2009 at 11:49 am

Essenmacher's guest opinion was informed and thought provoking. As a neighbor affected by the reopening of the Garland school site, who has attended many community meetings also, we have come to many of the same conclusions she mentions regarding the district's rather hasty, long term decision making process. Garland & Ohlone seem to be the catchall schools for enrollment problems.

We have observed that many key attendance, enrollment and school boundary decisions the district had already decided before getting any community input. The community meetings seemed designed to only generate positive feedback on district decisions.

The district's Garland advisory panel only consisted of higher up district employees and no outside community members - all agreed with the superintendent even when other problems or solutions were introduced.

School boundary issues were made to look like a minor issue to those in attendance but residents feel this is a very important matter that can have a direct impact on a school site. The boundary issue was also effectively "diffused" and made less contentious by the district at the meetings by telling concerned parents who attended the meetings that the "district will make every effort to keep families together and they won't be affected negatively by these boundary changes". In reality what this does is have all the enrollment problems fall upon the shoulders of young families who either have not had children yet, or their children are too young and the parents are not as interested in potential problems with boundaries since they haven't had any experience being in the neighborhood schools yet. The families of kids who are currently enrolled or whose children have already gone through elementary schools are the community members who know many of the pitfalls, problems & safety issues and not really been effectively included in the boundary planning process.

The traffic safety issues of elementary students crossing Oregon Expressway with 35 mph speeds has huge ramifications and the district seems to feel that having one crossing guard, across in reality six lanes of traffic, at Louis road - funded by the police department - didn't they just layoff a few people and make budget cuts? - will be adequate during heavy morning commute times. . . These student commute safety and school boundary issues have been pushed off by the district as "relatively unimportant" in the site planning process.

Is this wise???

Posted by Erin Mershon, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 3, 2009 at 3:56 pm

Those of you who are voicing opposition to the building plans are doing it in the wrong forum. Why are you writing to the paper and online and not speaking at School Board meetings? I didn't see you last night when the beautiful schematic designs were presented for Ohlone and Garland.

These plans were developed by a team of highly accomplished architects, construction managers, district officials, and elementary school principals. They have worked and re-worked these designs so many times after much input from the community. Maybe the final outcome wasn't what a certain community member wanted but the school district needs to do what's best for the kids and the school and they can't please everyone all of the time. They do listen to the community's feedback and they do take it into account when making their decisions. Do they have an idea of what they want before they go into the community meeting? Of course they do. You should always have an intended outcome before going into any meeting. But they always listen to the feedback and they don't *really* have to.

I want to address Essenmacher's point of "inadequate advertising of meetings in newspapers and e-news."

People just need to pay attention if they want to get involved. Look at what's on the agenda for the next Board meeting and get on the homepage of to check for any other upcoming meetings that might be of interest. The district is very forthcoming about what's happening in the community and what meetings are occurring. The school district shouldn't have to hand-feed us the meeting invites.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 4, 2009 at 2:23 am


Yes, the schematics were very pretty--advertisements often are, but those pretty schematics for Ohlone didn't tell us A)how many kids are they really planning to put at Ohlone and B)How those kids are going to get to Ohlone when there's only one entrance on a narrow residential street.

What became apparent from listening to the board is that they hadn't taken the time to actually scope out the campus. They seemed to be under the delusion that Ohlone could somehow have a back entrance through Friends and a side entrance through the Buddhist temple that would alleviate the car drop-off issue. Charles told them that Ohlone has one entrance--but that didn't seem to register.

You can't count on an entrance through someone else's private property. It's that simple.

While the two-story is a more efficient use of space than the currently endlessly dividing row of modular classrooms, what's not getting addressed is how willing the district is to abide by its own enrollment limits.

And what's really not being addressed is whether we should be planning for such large elementaries--particularly now when district enrollment's down.

I'd love to get a sense of why, given that the district owns the land, why we can't open smaller, less lavish elementaries?

That would be better for our kids.

It's like watching a sort of kabuki theater--no real questions getting asked.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 4, 2009 at 6:49 am

OhlonePar- I'm sure not wanting to open multiple elementaries is because of cost and in these budget times that's probably the right decision. You didn't answer my question about why no one spoke out against the plans at the meeting though. 4 people stood up and said they were happy with it.

Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 4, 2009 at 11:05 am

I agree with Essenmacher's article. Unsigned criticizms which do not deal with her specific points are unworthy of attention or weight. She dealt with the Paly campus and process, not Garland or Ohlone, and I agree with her that there the process and involvment of the public, who are paying the bonds and who will have to live with the buildings and design long after the current principal and staff are gone, was completely inadequate, and even hostile. The Paly principal was given far too strong as hand by the PAUSD Board and she did not handle it well. If time is lost it is because of a very bad start, not because some citizens spoke up. There is still time to correct the process, and I hope that the PAUSD Board and Superintendent do so. It is good that we have some people in town who take their citizenship seriously. Thank you Kirsten.

Posted by flawed, a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 4, 2009 at 11:16 am

Essenmacher is right on. No process is perfect but what is happening is inexcusable.

Put simply, this is a construction project and as such needs much more direction from construction professionals. Architects are notoriously poor estimators but great on sales. Contractors need to be consulted with prior to making any design commitments.

Why should the school design oversight be conducted by teachers who have little or no experience in this field of work. Their input and time should be commended but the school design should, with the teachers input, but managed by professionals (volunteers from the community.)

This is a LOT of money and we don't need a Boston tunnel project.

Posted by concerned parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 4, 2009 at 11:16 am

perhaps a total re-evaluation - before construction begins- is in order. Look at the recent events at Gunn High School and the well informed posts, esp. those in regard to school size and the recommendations by the Dept of Public Education.

Schools are not multi-national corportations -- our children need to BE MORE then a number. All of the school officials, parents and communities are crying out for change, answers, intervention. The students are asking for it. A less stressful environment does not mean one that doesnot provide top quality education or adequately prepare the students for higher education, but one that fosters exactly that by its inherent design.

Adolescents need inclusion and acceptance to grow into healthy, well adjusted people. Being a nameless face in a huge crowd is isolating and damaging. I wish we could afford to send my kids to smaller schools. I dont think the education is any better -- PAUSD some of the better class offerings and instruction in the area -- privates included. But this nameless, faceless, being a number... the suicides year after year... can you re-address the school size issue in light of the National Education recommendations and a clear crisis in our community?

Unfortunately, these suicides are not unique to just this year alone. Yes, suicide has many factors that contribute to it. But how great would it be to be able to reduce them as much as we can? This issue needs to be addressed from ALL levels -- family, health, and ENVIRONMENT.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 4, 2009 at 11:41 am

Concerned - what's unfortunate is that I knew plenty of kids who felt like they didn't fit in and were "lost" when Gunn was only 1200 students. I don't know that we can attribute the recent events to school size especially when you read about the individuals. These kids weren't "lost" in a huge school. It's unfair to use their deaths as motive for some agenda to reopen Cubberly just as it is wrong for people to be talking about the HSR right now.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 4, 2009 at 12:15 pm


You ask where everyone was on Tuesday and why they were not at the board meeting to give their comments on the beautiful proposals. For many of us, this is the busiest time of the school year. We are in the middle of award ceremonies, concerts, appreciation evenings, play offs,etc. etc. It is true to say that with more than one child and more than one outside school activity on top of school, this is just not possible for many of us. As your kids get older and get more involved in activities you will discover that you have less time on your hands to go to board meetings at any time during the school year, but particularly the last few weeks of school.

Given that, there are other ways of getting in touch with the board members. They do respond to emails (often in ways that they can't at meetings where you have 3 minutes to speak). Emails are a great way to get your point across and often the 3 minutes just gives the board a face to put to the name they hear.

For anyone who does have opinions on this, I recommend emailing the board.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 4, 2009 at 1:23 pm

I understand that and I also had conflicting meetings on Tuesday. To me, the anonymous posts online are a pure cop-out. On a similar note, sending an email to the Board versus standing up there at the podium and saying your statement outloud hold completely different credibility. Just something to think about if you really want your voice to be heard.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 4, 2009 at 1:40 pm


You didn't ask me that question. You asked someone else. Why would I answer for them?

So, actually, I considered going--once I realized that "budget" actually meant discussion of Ohlone construction. However, by the time that happened, my spouse had to be somewhere else that evening. So I had a child care issue. Since it was a discussion and not a vote, I felt that I could stay home and watch the meeting, which I did.

Don't assume I've never spoken or that I've never written to the board about these things.

Actual school size DOES matter. At the elementary level and at the high-school level. You say kids felt lost when Gunn was at 1200. Guess what? That's several hundred kids bigger than the ideal high school.

I'd rather have smaller schools with fewer bells and whistles. The outcomes are better and they're actually cheaper in terms of cost per student. ALL of our schools in Palo Alto are too large, by the way.

Posted by William Cutler, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 4, 2009 at 1:53 pm

It is a principle of life with almost the force of a law of nature that no plan can succeed that does not make winners of all the important stakeholders. From my observation over a lifetime, I can say with great certainty that the failure of public decisionmaking in the vast majority of cases can be traced to violation of that principle. A corrolary of that principle is that identification and engagement of all stakeholders as empowered participants in the decision-making is just about the most important task that leadership can take on. Scheduling a meeting and posting an announcement is definitely NOT adequate as a stakeholder engagement technique, and blaming stakeholders for missing the opportunity to have their say is definitely NOT an excuse for ignoring them.

It is quite evident from all the comments already posted, whether critical of the current process or critical of those who are criticizing, that stakeholder engagement for this issue is woefully inadequate.

If stakeholders are not adequately engaged, one or both of two bad things can happen.
1. The knowledge of the situation, experience with developing an answer, and creativity of the stakeholders will be lost.
2. Dissatisfied stakeholders will mount opposition, greatly delaying or even totally blocking progress.

Engaging stakeholders involves answering four questions.
1. Who are the stakeholders and what are their deeply held interests, values and priorities?
2. What is the Definition of Success in terms of Qualities of Outcome (not form of outcome) that all stakeholders agree includes all the qualities that they value? Note, resolution of conflicting qualities comes later.
3. What is the method for creating solution options and what is the method for evaluating them to arrive at a selection?
4. Having made a selection, how do we know it is a good one? Do the input data and assumptions stand up? Was the analysis done well? Is the selection free of flaws that would have been missed by the process so far?

A number of comments have advocated for the importance of expert knowledge as part of the planning and design process. There is no doubt about that, but the place to bring in experts is NOT AT THE BEGINNING. If experts are brought in prematurely they will run away with the project and shape it to their own biases and advantage. First, it is necessary for the lay stakeholders to identify and define the problem to everyone's satisfaction, and then create the Definition of Success as the aiming point. Then and only then (at question 3 above), bring in experts to discover the means to hit the target.

Bill Cutler

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 4, 2009 at 2:01 pm

You're right. Sorry, I did ask others why they weren't at the meeting, not you. I didn't direct my last statement towards you, OhlonePar because I've actually seen you at meetings, but I have no idea if these other people have spoken or not because they're anonymous.

Personally, I think the small school size did me a huge disservice when it was time to go away to college. Going from a total high school class of 240 to a lecture at UCSB for Anthropology 101 with 300 kids in an auditorium was a total culture shock and I was not prepared at all. Talk about feeling lost.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 4, 2009 at 2:19 pm


I'd say you simply went to too large a university. My college was smaller than my high school. It was a much better experience even though my high school had better sports facilities.

The current research on ideal class size, by the way, is *15*. No, not arguing for this, just pointing out that we thrive in pretty small groups. I can see why the district has to consider expanding class size, but I saw a real advantage to the 20-student limit--it came out in how well the teachers know the students and can work with them one-on-one. I think this is particularly valuable for the kids in the middle--the kids who don't need the time to get through the coursework, but really benefit when they do. Honestly, too, I think it's easier for the teacher not to have favorites--because, again, you know all the kids on a deeper level.

When you took that anthro course, did you read any of the studies on crowding?

Posted by Janice Miller, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 4, 2009 at 4:38 pm

I think that the community deserves to know that our support and tax money is highly valued. In my opinion, the makeup of the PALY Facilities Steering Committee is ill-considered.

When I voted on Measure A, it never occurred to me that the Steering Committee would be composed primarily of PALY’s Principal and the teachers she supervises.

Being an effective, or even outstanding, high school principal at one of our Palo Alto schools is quite an achievement. However, I don’t believe that this translates to design expertise of educational public facilities.

I would have expected that the PALY’s principal and several PALY teachers might be make up a minority of the PALY Facilities Steering Committee—not the majority. The principal is the supervisor of everyone on the committee. It is a clear conflict of interest.

I have to believe that we have much more qualified experts in our community, to make up the majority of seats on this committee--Palo Alto residents, who do not stand to directly benefit directly personally or financially.

I am always grateful if a member of a committee that I am on, or heading up, takes the initiative to do additional research. I am surprised that anyone would have a problem with committee members freely talking about design and planning issues with anyone—much less an individual on the community oversight committee,

Kirsten Essenmacher is my neighbor. She is smart, affable and upbeat. She offered her time to be helpful to them. I ran into her a couple of days after her run in at the school. I was disheartened.

We live in a community that cares deeply about our children. Many of us are feeling the financial crunch in our personal affairs. Yet, we repeatedly vote to keep our schools and libraries healthy into the future.

In contrast to “Anonymous,” I do not see this as a: “Palo Alto approach of delaying and arguing, extreme, laughable nitpicking, to no end.” I find that remark insulting. Evidently, “Anonymous” sees the composition of the committee that decides how our $98,000,000 will be spent as unimportant.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 4, 2009 at 5:40 pm

As a parent of very young children who will attend Paly, as a student who attended Gunn, and with my knowledge gained through observing my father on the school board for eight years, I'm actually in agreement that the majority of the steering committee should be the principal and the teachers.

Who knows the way the school works better than they do? They see the pros and cons of the different designs presented by the architects that others who aren't using the buildings on a daily basis can't see. This was clearly demonstrated in the design of the Admin building for Garland where the architects went through many redesigns as the principals on the committee gave their vision of the perfect arrangement of offices, conference rooms, and bathrooms. It may sound trivial now but when that school is open
those principals know that the admin building will be a crucial part of the daily workings of that school. Without their their involvement on the committee the school design would not be as functional as it is turning out to be.

Do we have experts in our community? Of course we do. This is the same argument we heard with the math textbook debate though. At what point do you trust the district to hire the experts and know they've learned from the mistakes of the past or do you pull your kids out and homeschool them? Personally, I like to think that the people I've elected to oversee these processes are going to do the right thing for our kids. That doesn't mean I don't still get involved but there has to be a better way than saying that the community knows better than the district.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 4, 2009 at 6:33 pm


No one's denying the administrator's input. On the other hand, while teachers teach and can justifiably claim some expertise about teaching materials, I don't buy that argument for architectural decisions. I live in house, have for decades. Doesn't mean I can design one.

This is a hell of a lot of money we're talking about and the decisions are permanent in a way the textbooks are not. If EDM is a disaster, we can change course and compensate. We won't have that option here.

So, sorry, public schools are a public trust and there should be input from the owners of that trust--and that's us.

And even the best, most idealistic, people have their blind spots. It's worth considering that in this case. We have a situation where the district ignored the overcrowding issue for years. Now they seem to be overcompensating while ignoring the district's own limits on school size.

There's a discussion that's not happening.

Posted by Janice Miller, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 4, 2009 at 6:59 pm

Erin brought up some valid and thought provoking points. I see some of the PALY teachers more as “Subject Matter Experts.” Their input should be addressed. It is absolutely important.

I do think that it is VERY IMPORTANT that the principal—and/or her/his assignee(s)—play a key role in the committee. This school principal is vested in the outcome and can identify people on his/her staff who have a lot to offer—as key decision makers and as individuals who might provide key information vital to the success.

I feel that it is very short-sighted to exclude other key expertise. Running one of the best public high schools in the state is more than a fulltime job. Palo Alto has brilliant individuals with direct knowledge in many areas. Reaching out for someone with the time and expertise to review, research, compare and summarize on key issues in a timely manner is wise and prudent. A few of these individuals might be willing to give of their time and resources—if they are appreciated. I do not mean monetarily.

Erin, if your father was on the school board, I am assuming that he had many frustrations over the years, as well as rewarding experiences. I bet that on a number of occasions, your Dad could have suggested individuals that could moved the process forward more efficiently and quickly.

I know that many people feel that outside individuals slow the process down—and it can, depending on who you choose. Selecting qualified residents can move the process forward. However, a qualified, talented person—who cares deeply about the children in Palo Alto—is not likely to want to volunteer time if they are treated like a pariah.

Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 6, 2009 at 10:48 am

This discussion will be more constructive if there is reference back to the initial Article by Kirsten Essenmacher where she reported carefully and specifically the details of the Paly Facilities Steering Committee -- see paragrphs 11 through 24 as the Article is set up when you hit the "print' icon. It is useless to have an abstaract debate over a concrete situation. There was virtually no public representation on the Committee, no community expertise, there were 9 meetings but the public was not invited at all until meeting 4 and then the public participation seems to have been tolerated rather than attended to, the dominate role assumed by the principal was stated in paragrphs 21 and 22. It is non-responsive to the Article to say that teachers/staff should be a majority of the Committee. I disagree, but that is not the issue raised by the Article. Read it again --- the facts stated there have not been disputed. Is that a process anyone wants to defend? If that process had been put to the public prior to bond vote, would the measure have passed? If it is not corrected, will the next measure pass?

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2009 at 3:57 pm

I totally agree with Essenmacher's observations, and especially the title of the essay. She is right on. Actually, if you replace "Paly" in the article for "Gunn", the problem is exactly the same. Quite a few of us having been observing exactly these problems in the Gunn planning process.

She is bringing this up at the right time, while there is still a chance to ensure that flaws early in the process don't result in the usual wars (for good reason) down the line.

Erin, Research shows the ideal high school size is 600 to 900 students, and can go somewhat larger in high socioeconomic areas. Smaller than that, and you often don't have access to the same resources, for example. At 2100 students, quality really breaks down and students learn less, even in high socioeconomic areas.

The school you went to was a lot smaller than optimal and does come with problems as you observed. Don't project that to mean any large school of any size is better. Not only is that not true in general, but the above commenters were correct that large schools do (per research) have less community and less dense social networks, and have a more bureaucratic character, and those things are associated with a greater likelihood that teenagers with suicidal thoughts will act on them.

We can always cite individual anecdotes, and sometimes they are representative, sometimes they are outliers -- but the above is what the research shows.

Personally, I observed exactly what Essenmacher did -- that significant decisions with multimillion dollar consequences (among other things) were being made in a very ad hoc and unsystematic way. No one is taking a systematic look at the big picture. I know two parent experienced project-managers who attended meetings and concluded basically (regarding the high school construction) that "they don't know how to run a project."

I think our district would really benefit from some help to set up processes that allow input and corrections when that input is the most important, so that we don't end up with these useless fights long after it's too late. Studies (here I go again, wanting to rely on actual studies) of reliable high-risk systems show that strong communication across loose hierarchies (where people at the "bottom" have authority to make necessary corrections that normally only people at the "top" would in a rigid hierarchy) results in few or no errors. Rigid hierarchies mean erroneous paths don't get corrected. Pointing to credentials as a reason not to act rather than dealing with the circumstance is a sure way to get errors, potentially catastrophic ones.

But let me add here that in this case, it isn't too late. Essenmacher's essay came at just the right time. The question is, how do we get the district to develop better processes and apply them to this huge project, and quickly? Through citizen action? Through political action? Through the upcoming audit? How? I would personally wonder if they might benefit from getting some help from a company that deals with improving design process, such as IDEO or even one of the high-risk/reliability companies. But the board and superintendent aren't going to ask for this, I don't think they see a problem. The flaws in the system we have work beautifully for certain people to push through their own agendas.

Tom Jordan, I agree 100% with you, and this is exactly what has been happening at Gunn, too. If this project isn't managed well, it will have consequences long into the future for our kids and our community. The question is, what can we do about it?

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2009 at 4:03 pm

There should be significant input from teachers and existing administrators. The thing is, they haven't had to deal with a school that has 2500 students, so they aren't factoring in that as a priority in their input. They are prioritizing other things that have been a problem for them.

However, the community and parents of elementary students are the ones who will be most affected by these decisions, not the kids who will graduate and go on. We're also the ones paying for this.

Essenmacher's essay isn't saying we shouldn't have input from the people you want, it's saying everyone else has been shut out, exactly what I saw happening at Gunn.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2009 at 7:17 pm

Like many things with the school district, there are lots of opinions about the right thing to do. But the most important thing is to do something - more kids are coming, we need more space. So kudos for the district for keeping things moving along.

If Skelly does a bad job, we can fire him. But at least he is not succumbing to Palo Alto process analysis paralysis and the tyranny of "good ideas."

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 7, 2009 at 7:40 pm

Me Too,
Trouble is, firing Skelley won't fix anything if he pushes through making our high schools ultra-large and that causes education quality, the reputation of our schools, and our property values to suffer. I don't want to fire Skelley, I want him to sprout some big-picture thinking and leadership skills.

If we take the attitude that doing anything no matter what it is is good (with hundreds of millions of dollars, no less) regardless of what the community wants or is in the best interest of the community, then we will be throwing away our kids' futures (and hundreds of millions of dollars to boot).

Ms Essenmacher's essay is right on and made at a time when it's not too late for changes to be made to do things right. The trouble is, that most people don't understand the implications, and once again they will get involved when it's too late to solve anything. But right now, is a good time to point out that the emperor has no clothes (I didn't mean Skelley, I meant the process) and make it right.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 7, 2009 at 8:11 pm

If you disagree with the current path, you should write the board, go to the meetings, and get your input heard. Maybe you have already. If the thinking amounts to "I like smaller schools", with or without supporting articles, then you'll get your 2 minutes at the podium and we can move on.

My guess is that Skelly, the board, the principals, and the people on the committees aren't ignorant or blind to issues like school size or whatever other "big picture" issue you have in mind. They have simply come to a conclusion about it and are ready to move forward.

Skelly has shown on a number of issues that he has a bias toward getting things down vs. running a Palo Alto process and trying to accommodate or just delay. Maybe that will get him fired for not "consulting the community" sufficiently. But maybe we'll get things done and be the better for it.

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2009 at 4:32 am

Hi Me Too,
I think one of the reasons Essenmacher wrote the article is because those of us who attended the few meetings that were available to the public found that "input" was limited and mostly window dressing.

I have to respectfully disagree with your guess -- I know from someone who went to the League of Women Voters talk that Skelley gave prior to Measure A being on the ballot when he was completely new to the district, that he expressed a desire to make Gunn a two-story campus and didn't want to consider opening Cubberley because he didn't want to hassle with changing boundaries. I'm told at the time he was so new he didn't even know what the Young 5's program was.

As Essenmacher reported, I too witnessed major decisions being channeled on an ad hoc and unsupported basis. The process is really flawed. Moving forward without community input is outrageous -- we voted for these hundreds of millions in taxes to improve our schools. Skelley's specific agenda was not listed on the bond, I don't think it would have passed if he had honestly told the public that he intended to make Gunn and Paly enormous schools with it -- because the public would have had the necessary discussions about the implications of that before voting.

I see no signs that he is considering any input except his particular biases when he came to the job, before he had any detailed knowledge of our district. I certainly couldn't gather that from the planning process!

Again, action for action's sake is expensive and could be disastrous. This is a public trust of hundreds of millions of dollars, the future of our kids, schools reputation, and property values -- that this community voted for because it was sold as an improvement of our schools. The people running the project need to be fiscally responsible and responsive to the community. Getting the "big picture" is just old-fashioned running a project well, where you look at priorities and costs and compare them.

I have heard some of the "principles" say things like, that they had looked at whether to open Cubberley with the high school task force, and that the HSTF concluded not to --knowing full well that the HSTF concluded they didn't have the expertise to answer the question and wanted to look at curriculum instead. And it was also before Measure A, AND no cost estimates were generated for comparison. How could they "get the big picture" and compare costs without the data to do so? Even if such an outrageously logical thing had been generated, the change in the economy would necessitate a new estimate, to make a valid comparison with current estimates on the existing plans to enlarge Gunn and Paly (since they are being fast-tracked ostensibly to save money in the down economy).

So not only couldn't they get the big picture, it's just wrong that they would defend their course of action with what are essentially misrepresentations about why they aren't taking a systematic look at all factors. (I'm not suggesting any deliberate malfeasance, only laziness and poor management -- but the end result for the public is the same.)

Another thing I have heard and seen lately is the false argument that Measure A doesn't cover Cubberley and a new bond would have to be voted on, which is just plain incorrect. Either the "principles" haven't read the bond (evidence of incompetence) or they are deliberately misrepresenting the facts. I know that this idea was floated by the "principles" because someone in the public works department was making big decisions on a city issue based on being told exactly that by the district office. All you have to do is read Measure A to see that the district has the ability to even acquire new land and renovate any of its properties beyond those explicitly enumerated (under "other district-wide projects") should the board decide.

Again, the fact that people feel they have to misrepresent these important facts in order to avoid a competent evaluation of all the issues and costs is disturbing and flies in the face of any assumptions that everyone must be doing the right thing just because.

Our processes in the district need to be examined so that we don't have to have discussions like this, but that we are able to move forward competently to maintain excellence in our district. Essenmacher's warning is timely and right on point. Nothing has been built, there is still time to do things right.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2009 at 11:01 am

I'm not sure what knowing about Young 5's has to do with how big our high schools should be. ;-)

You are right, the bond didn't tell how the funds would be spent - the language is indeed extremely broad. That was on purpose of course, since the district wants maximum flexibility. Now the decision of what to do rests with the Board and, to the extent that he drives it, Mr. Skelly and his staff. Community input, except to the extent it is spelled out in their policies and procedures, is at their discretion. We've given them the money; now they decide.

We could have voted a smaller bond; we could have gotten more assurances; we could have insisted on a tighter scope of how the bond could be spent. But we didn't. So now, from Skelly's viewpoint, he's been given the charter to get it done. And a bunch of people with their own ideas about how things might get done - well, invite them to the meeting, but don't let them derail what we have set out to do.

You think they should consider more options, "get the big picture," incorporate community feedback. Maybe. But from their POV, that is a pandora's box - once they start (openly) considering any and all options and getting lots of people involved, it is very hard to call a halt. So they need to use their judgment on how much input, in what forums, and what formally gets considered. And apparently they have.

You might be right - they might just be ignorant, incompetent, or have their heads in the sand (or other places!). If so, shame on us, since we elected the Board and they hired Skelly, and then we voted overwhelmingly for the Measure A. Now they are executing.

Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 8, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Do not use "the Palo Alto Process" as code to criticize "meddlesome citizens", who are not the problem when the local governmental process goes astray. The School Board, City Council and their staffs hold all, and I mean all, the cards in determining what happens. They set the agendas, they determine how early or late an item is heard, they control the staff reports, releasing them to the public only a few days before hearings and they determine whether a citizen can have three or two minutes to speak. This is absolute and complete power over the process. When things go wrong -- and they do go wrong -- and citizens speak up, there are always those who criticize the speakers, using "the Palo Alto Process" as code to imply that the speakers will cause delay, interference and disruption. In fact, the citizens who speak up have zero power to do any of those things. How can they? It is true that the Decision Makers/Staff can dither and wander in the wilderness or the Applicant, if there is one, can be the source of delays, then complain about the very delay that the Applicant itself caused, but the Citizens have no power, none, except at elections. Generals lose battles and wars, not soldiers. The School Board/Staff then in office wasted a sizable chunk of the last School Bond at the beginning of planning/construction. Although the current people in those positions are different, there should be Institutional Memory that the process with this Bond Issue so that will not happen again. My point is not that the current governmental process should be changed, but that the Decision Makers/Staff should be the ones recognized as fully responsible when things go badly. More citizens, not fewer, should be speaking up.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 8, 2009 at 2:39 pm


This isn't a case of interfering with a developer's plans for a shopping center (not that I oppose that), but a huge bond that we're all paying quite a bit for. It concerns our kids and the quality of our schools.

Why are these plans being rushed? Why is there no discussion about what our schools should be? I was shocked when I started hearing what was planned for Ohlone--it has not been a long drawn-out process. By the time the parents are brought in, the key decisions have been made--i.e. that Ohlone would have at least 10 classrooms added permanently. Without there ever having been a vote on what size school Ohlone should be. Escondido's already in this position.

The same thing is going on with the high schools on a larger scale.

Why aren't we looking at alternatives to the endless expansion of Gunn and Paly? So there will be a fracas over the boundaries? Making high schools so large that their quality is almost certain to decline is a better alternative?

This is a hell of a lot of money to pay for poorer quality and more overcrowded schools.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2009 at 3:28 pm

OP, your comments give some clue as to why parental/community input is limited and controlled in the process. You think there should be a "vote on what size school Ohlone should be." And you state that large schools are almost certain to have lower quality (fwiw, Bronx Science has 2800 kids; Stuyvesant has 3100; I'm sure there are plenty of good smaller high schools as well).

The board and district could spend a two or three years trying to deal with yours and many other concepts, listen, argue, explore myriad alternatives, hire various consultants and experts to opine, deal with splinter extremists and charter school threats, and generally try to accommodate - or they can move forward using the knowledge and judgment they possess.

You don't like the direction and don't like the process. That's fine, you are entitled to those views certainly and should voice them in whatever forums are available. But the only ones who get to vote on the size of schools are the school Board members. We elected them to make those decisions, and voted the bond giving them the money to implement them.

I personally did not support the bond - but we voted it for it overwhelmingly, with a huge amount and very broad charter. In my view, our leaders are now doing what we pay and authorize them to do (do school board members get any pay?). And while some feelings will be bruised, and even some sub-optimal decisions made, I am glad that they are moving ahead with plans to improve and expand our schools.

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Me Too,
If you are sitting at a crossroads, and you know that some of the roads will lead over a cliff, some will lead into dense thickets, and some will lead to hundreds of millions of dollars (well spent), do you
a) think about how to choose the right road, or
b) charge ahead, believing that acting is better than stopping to think, no matter where you end up?

You are advocating for the latter. I and a lot of other parents happen to care about the quality of our education, the reputation of our schools, our property values, etc.

Skelley had a poorly thought out agenda when he didn't even know much about our district (e.g., he had decided he wanted to enlarge Gunn when he didn't even know what the Young 5's program was -- not knowing what the Young 5's program is demonstrates an almost complete lack of knowledge of even the basics of our district). If he wanted carte blanche to proceed without consulting the public, he should have been more specific about his agenda before we voted on Measure A. Had he been honest and open about it, he would likely either have had to back off on his agenda to get Measure A passed, or Measure A would probably not have passed.

You may be inclined to throw up your hands and say, "well, he had an agenda and wasn't honest about it, but we voted on it and now it's too late to demand any accountability for how hundreds of millions of our tax dollars are spent," but those of use who care about this community actually want accountability of our public officials. Especially where our schools, which concern our children and our property values, are concerned.

You can always bring up a few outlier examples, but the research shows that larger schools (above 2100) is associated with less learning. Some of this research actually looked at enrollment "shocks" -- a sudden surge in the number of students -- in other words, maybe Stuyvesant is an outlier and is getting away with a larger enrollment, but the students could probably be getting an even more optimal experience with a 1500 student population. (The studies mostly show that 600-900 students is an optimal high school -- studies in New York are actually a major reason that optimal is up to 1500 in high socioeconomic areas.)

And we don't live in Manhattan, we live in Palo Alto. We choose to live in Palo Alto. Many of us do not want our high schools Manhattan-ized. If Skelley takes the attitude that it's my way or the highway, then he is not the right administrator for this district. You clearly disagree and like someone who makes up their mind and never changes it regardless of the facts (regardless of whether he's chosen a road that leads over a cliff), but most of us parents find that unacceptable. This is a fight worth fighting, and Essenmacher's essay has pointed out the flaws while there is still time to choose the best path. Why is this so threatening to you? (Are you a PAUSD administrator?)

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Whew! Always edit your work, kids. Forgive my improper use of tense above... (Yep, education are important...) I did go to a large high school after all...

Posted by mom, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2009 at 11:13 pm

It is disingenuous to hold up Stuyvesant in the argument over school size, as it restricts enrollment based on academic achievement and has done so for the last 97 years. It's like a free private school that can pick and choose from the large pool of New York's finest. That's not in any way comparable to what we have here in Palo Alto.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 8, 2009 at 11:25 pm

Just wondering how many good superintendents this district is willing to lose before they wake up and realize that no one will want to come to Palo Alto because we always run them out of town.

Why do you assume that Skelly had no knowledge of Palo Alto? He was in Saratoga for years and just prior to coming to Palo Alto was in Poway under Don Phillips who was the superintendent before Mary Frances. The Young Fives program, while fantastic and worthwhile and SUCH a great benefit to our kids only serves 40 kids. What you've heard is a rumor that may or may not be true and is irrelavent.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 9, 2009 at 12:48 am

Me Too,

Where did I say the parents should have the vote? The board has never voted on it. They're building a 12-room building without actually discussing expansion of the school past the district's own given limit.

No public debate on something that they're setting in motion. By the time the debate comes up, they'll have put the building in. It's underhanded.

My view,in a sense, is simple, the district should hold to its regulations on school size instead of trying to use the bond windfall to get around them.

Again, we're talking about a hell of a lot of money to just hand over without scrutiny. You'd think *maybe* with nearly half a billion we could get some less crowded schools and even a third high school--since we do, after all, have a third one and we own three grade schools we don't use as public schools.

Let me repeat that--we have hundreds of millions in bond money, more than the state's park budget It's a hell of a lot of money to pay for overcrowded schools.

A Parent,

Nice work. Bravo.


Given that Young Fives is at one of the three "unused" public elementaries, it's surprising Skelly didn't know it. The district's not that big and it's his *job* to know what's in it--particularly given some of the juggling considerations and the fact that one of Greendell's tenants is leaving. What "good" supers have we lost? Callan was awful.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2009 at 11:22 am

OP, you had said there had never been a vote on Ohlone's size, I thought you were implying by parents, since you were discussing parental involvement. Perhaps you meant by the school board, in which case I apologize.

You've made up your mind on school size it sounds. Bigger is badder. By expanding the facilities, though, they are trying to make them not crowded, simply larger. I personally don't object to larger schools.

Parent, if you think Skelly is underhanded and has "a poorly thought out agenda" then maybe you should work to get him fired. Personally I don't think those things are true, but I agree those are not good attributes for our Superintendent. My belief is that he feels reasonably confident based on his professional experience and judgment about the path chosen and doesn't want to get derailed by a drawn out process of community engagement beyond what is currently being done. That there are some that disagree with him doesn't make him wrong, or the process flawed, in my judgment.

As I said above, I think you are a little late on this - the time to try to put in procedural controls was before the bond was voted in (or the board elected). You can try now, but I think it is unlikely, and perhaps undesirable since the district is briskly moving forward.

In terms of merit, I'm not persuaded by your reports of "studies" showing "optimal sizes." Maybe - but there are very successful bigger schools, and the local Superintendent, staff, and Board who believe the larger schools can work here. You and some others may not agree, which is fine, but that is not a reason to derail the process.

And no, I have no affiliation with the district besides my 3 kids, including one in high school. I just like to see things get done, even when I don't always agree.


I have to agree with you. The idea that Skelly (allegedly) didn't know by name the program for 40 kids does not make me lose much sleep. There may be an elementary school teacher or two he doesn't know by name yet as well.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 9, 2009 at 11:54 am

I don't know how this got into a debate about the Superintendent and his qualifications or agenda for the district but I think it's important to note something that he said at a recent School Board meeting. It was in reference to the delay of the boundary discussions for Garland and one Board member wanted the term "neighborhood school" taken out of the text for what Garland would become when it opens in 2012. There was much back and forth between the Board and the Superintendent and at one point Skelly said that they "hired him to make strong recommendations" and if they didn't want him to do that they needed to tell him. They didn't speak up.

I think people should be looking to the Board instead of the Superintendent if they insist on pointing fingers and laying blame. They are the ones holding the cards in the end and have the votes to make things happen. However, as the daughter of a former Board member, I just hope that you take a step back and remember that they are all human beings with children of their own and they are trying to do what they believe is best for our schools.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 9, 2009 at 1:43 pm

Me Too,

Yes, I was referring to a lack of a board vote. They're building for a larger school without having authorized it. It's circumventing a debate.

There's a substantial body of research on the subject of school size, it's not me with my mind made up. The research shows that large schools adversely affect kids and are actually more expensive per student than smaller schools. Look up Kathleen Cotton.

Are you sure it's not you with the made-up mind on this?

I'm at Ohlone every day. I deal with the traffic at its one narrow entrance. I see how much of the property the fire road occupies. I see already the effects of the current expansion of the school population. It's just a bit harder to do everything--school community activities are more crowded and more stressful. Already I find myself opting out of participating in things because of the increased crowding.

It becomes more onerous to volunteer, more onerous to organize, harder to function as a cohesive community. There's just an erosion that takes place. And the Ohlone Way requires a lot of volunteering--the Farm alone requires $25K raised by the community as well as "farm days" where families maintain the farm and daily animal maintenance every day of the year.

And it's only going to get bigger. Right now, the effects are noticable, but not catastrophic, but it won't take much more to tip the school over. MI doesn't help in that it takes a lot of energy and focus from the administration at the cost of the rest of the school.

Is it totally accidental that the principal spearheading MI and the new facilities has decided to drop both balls and retire?


Your quote from Skelly does not speak in his favor. He serves at the pleasure of the board who should be representing us. The use of a school site is something the board decides--Skelly's job is to advise and implement. He is, after all, not an elected official.

I've a limited amount of tolerance for a superintendant who wouldn't expect the community to speak up on the implementation of a huge bond. If he wanted to run things without interference he shouldn't have asked for a gigantic bond.

That's just reality.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2009 at 3:39 pm

OP, I have made up my mind that, in the absence of some compelling evidence that I haven't seen, that I will rely on the elected officials and the staff they have hired, such as Mr. Skelly, to make the call on this one. I presume they will follow the proper legal procedure and balance the value of community input with the need to execute on expanding and improving facilities. You and others may know better than they, I don't know; but I haven't seen anything to persuade me that their plan will not work as intended.

FWIW, your approach seems alarmist - "it won't take much to tip the school over," etc. Maybe. But things do change and most people adjust. Hopefully if the plans go through, you will be able to adjust.

On the comment to Erin - yes Skelly serves at the board's pleasure. But he appropriately sets the terms under which he will continue to serve. He feels they should generally follow his leadership and take his recommendations; if they don't want to, that's fine, they should fire him.

This is his bias toward leadership and action. It sounds like this was clearly discussed with the Board at the time he was hired, so should come as no surprise; moreover, he has taken this stance on multiple issues in the time he has been here. Frankly, I love it - he gets things done and doesn't get bogged down in endless debate and delay. We can judge him by the results and if we don't like it, the board can fire him at any time.

You say "If he wanted to run things without interference he shouldn't have asked for a gigantic bond." Actually, you have it backwards: if you wanted the community to be able to "interfere," you shouldn't have voted for a gigantic bond without tighter strings. I imagine you supported the bond OP; now we all have to live with its consequence. I actually supported a much smaller bond, in order to retain more influence - but that ship sailed on election day.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 9, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Me Too,

Actually, if you look back at my posts from the time, I had a lot of questions about the bond--the finances did not make sense to me. The cost of many things was very high.

Don't assume what's not in evidence.

I'm not being an alarmist, I'm being a realist--developmental programs require a balancing act. I've been on the ground floor long enough to see which adjustments are and are not working.

I don't share your trust of public officials--not to this degree. As an American, I believe strongly in the tradition of officials being accountable to me.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2009 at 1:07 am

Ok I won't assume, I'll ask. Did you vote for the bond? I did not. But either way, the bond was overwhelmingly approved. The voters have spoken, and given the district wide latitude to spent the money as they see fit.

Our school officials are accountable - at the ballot box. In the meantime, they are our elected leaders. And you can question all you want in the forums provided. But if you want more input and control over the programs, you'd be wise to lobby for that ahead of time.

Too often in Palo Alto, a small minority of unelected zealots bring decision making to a halt, or worse, get their way by brow beating officials. I'm glad that the school district seems to have moved away from this and would be pleased if the city did as well.

Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 10, 2009 at 11:14 am

I return to the issue raised by Essenmaker's piece: Reading her piece again is there anyone who wants to defend the Paly process that she describes? Many of the posts since then raise points generally about PAUSD -- interesting points, but not responsive to Essenmacher's article. I have seen none that disagree with the the facts of the process that she describes and several with direct experience that agree strongly. Posts along the lines of "Trust the Board and the Superintendent" do not respond to her specifics. Posts that say we should have fixed this before we voted are not realistic and and want to avoid any work of rescuing the process now. The issue is: If the Paly process to date was inadequate, to put the kindest label on it, is there time to fix it with strong community comments to the Board/Superintendent. Essenmacher says that there is time and I agree. Now, will those who care make those comments and fix the process? That is the test of citizenship.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 10, 2009 at 11:31 am

Tom, I do disagree with the points in the editorial. Nothing in it created much concern on my part that the process was inadequate or needed significant change. A committee made up primarily of the people who use the building (principal and teachers) seems right to me. And the opportunities for public participation also seem right. This is, in my experience, how buildings get built.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 11, 2009 at 12:30 am

Me Too,

I was really torn about the bond because it is important to support the schools and construction is needed, but I also didn't like a lot of it and I could never get a good answer as to why it had to be so damn big.

I ended up abstaining, which I hate doing.

I do agree that there can be micromanaging in Palo Alto--but this not a small school management issue--it's a big issue and the choices made will have long-term repercussions. School quality matters--for our kids and, frankly, for our finances. The last superintendent was bad enough that the school principals rose up against her. Our current one looks a bit more aware, but is still very new and looks to veer toward a closed authoritarian management style when feeling pressured.

With Ohlone's new principal, the hiring process requires that parent reps have a certain amount of input--given the timing, that input looks pretty much like lip service. I'm quite sure Skelley knows who he wants and while he may required to let parents have a say, he's not interested in actually listening.

Now, you may favor that--we're looking at a very quick turnaround, Skelley will be getting things done. But is doing it that way really going to get us the best results? My guess is no. (I say this, by the way, as someone who's not really interested in making a big deal of this--I've enough causes already.)

But, anyway, my point is that even when we're supposed to have input and the district has procedures and regulations--i.e. school size limits that seem to be being thrown to the winds, hiring processes that are required to have community input--we seem to have a tradition at Churchill of trying to ignore or work around those safeguards.

Public schools are a public trust. In part my skepticism dates to my having been in schools when Proposition 13 passed. Some districts weathered the big cuts in funding--my school district and high school went on an amazing downward spin. As much as I disagree with people over various things, Palo Alto has kept together some good schools because people care enough to pass bonds, to argue for and against programs.

Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 11, 2009 at 12:03 pm

This will be my last comment on this matter. The public can decide whether (a) a thirteen person committee made up of the Paly principal and ten Paly teachers and staff that she appointed, with only one citizen and one sophomore student tacked on (pay very close attention Sophomore because we are depending on you), (b) which did not open its meetings to the public until the fourth of nine meetings, then seemed to give no weight to public comments and (c) with the Paly principal aggressively placing herself between the public and any contact with the committee members is a wise, fair appropriate process to determine the plans to spend $99M of bond money on the improvments to the Paly campus. My own evaluation is that it was unwise, unfair and inappropriate and should be re-opened. Winston Churchill wisely commented that "In a democracy the public gets the government it deserves." We will see what happens.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 11, 2009 at 12:21 pm


I hope you continue to comment because you make your point well.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 11, 2009 at 5:54 pm

Thanks Tom. I agree that the public will decide and I expect will generally be ok with it. And I hope you continue to comment as well.

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 11, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Another parent told me about the Essenmacher article, saying it was exactly what we've all been saying about the Gunn process. Since I believe it's a different architect (someone correct me if I'm wrong), this speaks even more strongly to the district administration being the source of the flawed process.

Me Too,
A roomful of people heard Skelley misspeak about Young 5's -- I asked my friend again, it's not hearsay. He made up his mind that we were going to build larger high schools before he knew much about our district, before Measure A had even been voted on. Before he even knew what Young 5's, one of just a handful of different programs we have for elementary students, was.

If you want to see research on school size, one has only to look. The consensus is really that 600 to 900 is optimal, based on considerable research that has been validated in further studies by other researchers. You can start with studies by Lee and Smith or get the same facts from the US department of education if you are interested, but I doubt you are since it refutes the little cloud of opinion with which you have apparently surrounded yourself.

The examples you have given of larger high schools are all like little private colleges, which restrict admission based on academic qualifications, drawing from very large populations of millions of people (Bronx HS, Stuyvesant). You can't make a valid comparison.

As far as other schools, in any large high school, there will always be some people who do okay. But the research unequivocally shows that when schools exceed 2100, learning declines overall. Density of social networks declines. The achievement gap widens. At some point, efficiencies of scale even disappear, and larger high schools end up less efficient.

We can act like GM and continue on our merry way, assuming we're the best just because we are not because of what we do, or we can act more like Toyota and become the best because we never assume and always strive for what makes us better.

By the way, didn't Gunn just get knocked off the Newsweek 100 best high schools list this year? And Paly last year?

Your kids will be out of school when these changes hurt education in Palo Alto. Mine won't.

The question is, what leverage do we as citizens have to change the processes by which the board does business and manages this and other projects, so that in the future they make good use of community and teacher input for better outcomes instead of creating rancor and wasting our money?

I am hearing rumblings among parents looking for options. Regular citizen grassroots involvement is unlikely to change anything. So what will? A lawsuit? A recall? The upcoming audit? Getting Skelley fired? (and how does that happen anyway?) Starting a charter high school? (which seems to be the only real power citizens have in a district that disregards parent input)

If this were at the state level, I understand what to do. What are the relevant statutes and recourse/remedies at this level?

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 11, 2009 at 11:52 pm

A question - if we were talking about the design of a Police HQ, would we think it wrong that the police captain and his/her staff would be dominate the steering committee to guide the architect on the design of the building?

This being Palo Alto, there are probably those who DO think it should be a big public process - but my reaction is, of course not. It makes sense that the people who use the building and know its current shortcomings define its requirements. Even though the public pays, and a pretty penny, they really don't know much about what should go into the building.

So is a school different? Why would a number of non-users (from retired teachers to "experts in finance" to parents) have a better understanding of what the building should do than the people who use it?

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 12, 2009 at 12:50 am

Parent, I have a few years left to go I'm afraid - my youngest is just 9 ;-)

I'm curious - why would Skelly and the Board not want to the best thing, assuming the answer is so obvious? Are they lazy? Ignorant? Conflicted? They could of course be wrong - people often are - but I wonder why their judgment would be so poor in a matter like this.

Maybe you can convince others that big is bad. My quick research turned up various views on school size (though some strongly held), as well as well reputed schools of various sizes - Berkeley High (3300), Newton North (2200), Boston Latin (2400), Eden Prairie High (3200), Edina High (2000), Wilmette/New Trier (4100) etc. There seem to be many excellent smaller schools as well of course, I'm just calling out some of the bigger ones. But the relationship of size to quality did not seem as cut and dried as you believe.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 12, 2009 at 1:58 am


I'm glad there are rumblings about size regarding the high schools, maybe it will trickle down to some concern about what's happening to the grade schools.

Me Too,

Opening a new high school is a lot more work on the administrative level than pushing through two-story buildings on the existing high schools. Same situation with the elementaries.

Skelley doesn't want to open Cubberly because he doesn't want to deal with all the families who bought in south Palo Alto so that their kids could go to Gunn.

The convenient choice isn't always the best choice. Simple as that, really.

As for the difference between the police station and a school--most of us never see the inside of the police station. Our kids attend the schools for years. It's the administrators who come and go.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 12, 2009 at 10:59 am

I guess there will always be people who wants the person in charge "fired." I think it's very unfortunate because I think Skelly is one of the best Superintendents we've had and he's getting high regards from many other Superintendents right now. I not only would hate to see Palo Alto lose him but I would also hate for our district to be seen as one that isn't happy with any Superintendent except one who cowers to every parent-driven decision. Who would want to come work in a place like that

I'm curious to know if you know if the process at the high schools mirrored the process at the elementary schools. I was only involved in the Garland process so unless I know if the processes were similar I really can't comment on Paly.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 12, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Well, OP, if the argument boils down to that Skelly is lazy and the board is weak - which seems to be what you are saying - then I am not too concerned. I'd say the chances are higher than they have used their judgment and come to a different conclusion than some enthusiastic parents and are trying to keep control of their process. You might be right, but I haven't seen a lot of evidence to support that Skelly and the board are acting for "convenience."

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 12, 2009 at 10:43 pm

The process at Garland seems to have been better than at the high schools. I haven't been to the Garland meeting as I have to some of the HS meetings, but I do know at least one administrative participants and respect his input. The design of the proposed Garland building is also quite nice.

The process at the high schools has been ad hoc and flawed in the specific ways Essenmacher lays out in her article. No one has laid out a clearly stated list of needs and priorities to the public related to the way the money will be spent. The architect has been very careful not to put things out in writing to the public. I have heard teachers at Gunn complain that their input wasn't really listened to (outside of the panel). A lot of decisions seem to just be window dressing to go along with Skelley's existing agenda.

For example, Likens shot down an attendee's question by saying the decision had been made to build multistory in order to keep the footprint down because it already takes so long for students to change classes and they didn't want to extend the school day. But then the architects, even in their very stilted list of pros and cons, said that changing classes would take longer with two-story. Yet this point did nothing to revisit the original "priority" -- it's all just seemingly about supporting a predetermined outcome and give the appearance of public input.

Me Too,
Having a productive discussion with you is hopeless. I don't know what your axe to grind is and why you make such slanted arguments, but I am wondering if you aren't TJ, PAUSD administrator?

For anyone interested in this issue, please dig deeper and with the body of educational research on "optimal high school size". Actually, Google that phrase. Look up the researchers I mentioned previously.

As for your examples, let's start with your first. Having lived in the East Bay, I do not recall BH as the epitome of academic achievement. According to Wikipedia, Berkeley High is the 2nd largest student body in a California HS. Per the article, in 2005, in order to deal with problems resulting from its large size, the school was reorganized into a number of smaller schools. They're more strapped for money than we are -- if things were going so great as a large school, why do this?

Here's an interesting link about Berkeley High:
Web Link
Their average HSAP scores are lower than the average in South Carolina.

Compare some test results between Gunn and Berkeley HS:
Gunn 55% in Grade 9 met or exceed state standards in Algebra I, etc
Web Link
Berkeley High only 4% met or exceed state standards in Algebra I
Web Link

Gunn STAR test results API 904 Web Link
Berkeley High has no 2008-9 API report for failing to test enough non-exempt students

The last time Berkeley High tested enough students was in 2005, it's API was 725. Skelley would be lynched if that happened to our district. Perhaps it yet will with his aiming to pack more students on our campuses.

Their SAT scores are considerably lower on average than Gunn's, as are Poway's, by the way. Saratoga HS, Skelley's other alma mater, has similar SATs to Gunn's -- they also have a student body of 1300.

Boston Latin is yet another example of a prestigious public school that limits admission based on academic achievement. It's not worth my time to go on, but I hope other readers get the message that Me Too seems to have an agenda and is playing loose with his facts and examples.

The fact that so many of Me Too's examples don't hold up to scrutiny speaks either to his having an agenda for failing to support his argument with legitimate examples, wanting to mislead for whatever reason or just...laziness.

A review of educational research shows that optimal high school size is 600 to 900. In high socioeconomic areas, this can be up to 1500 students. Lower and higher than that compromises learning. That's the research.

Skelley had an agenda to build up at our high schools before he knew much about our district. This community voted for Measure A to improve our schools, not fulfill an agenda that will likely hurt quality. We need to hold him accountable BEFORE he spends tens of millions of our dollars on measures that from all indications will strain quality. BEFORE the poor outcome that Essenmacher predicts in her essay.

Posted by Perfect Palo Alto Strikes Again!, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 13, 2009 at 6:06 am

Certainly looks like classic "Palo Alto Process" to me: A bunch of overeducated know-it-alls coming in at the last minute, arguing that not everyone was heard (i.e., their own ideas weren't accepted), thereby delaying the process and wasting taxpayers dollars (while current students have to deal with outdated/inadequate facilities).

And just think, by the time this one gets done after several years of delays, the economy will have recovered and construction costs will have soared back up, so, in the end, the all-inclusive, kumbaya plans will have to be significantly scaled back.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 13, 2009 at 9:31 am

If you read Essenmacher's essay, the subject of this debate, she is pointing out how flaws in the planning process could lead to a poor outcome for our students (you didn't even have to read beyond the title to gather that). The point is, IT'S EXACTLY THE RIGHT TIME TO CORRECT MISTAKES IN ORDER TO AVOID A FLAWED PROCESS HURTING OUR STUDENTS AND OUR DISTRICT. It is exactly the right time to get on track, before tens of millions, potentially hundreds of milliones of dollars are wasted or poorly spent.

I went to meetings and observed exactly what Essenmacher describes at the Gunn Meetings. A fellow parent who also went to the meetings pointed the article out to me, saying, "did you see that article? It's exactly what we've been saying about the Gunn planning"

I see Essenmacher and above commenters (Even Me Too, for all his/her agenda pushing) as people who care about improving our schools, so that we don't see our hundreds of million of tax dollars wasted for what could be inadequate and poorly planned facilities that hurt rather than improve educational quality.

Our schools are too crowded. That's reality. I and a lot of other people don't want to see the money spent crowding more kids onto those campuses. I'd like to see a legitimate attempt at logical planning, at least a comparison of construction and life cycle costs and expected academic impact of opening Cubberley (and improving Gunn and Paly as 1500-1700 student campuses) vs. spending tens of millions extra for multistory buildings to pack all those extra students on those campuses (where Gunn and Paly will be 2300-2500 students and up). The way they have accounted for additional traffic is to insist that there won't be any, and so on.

I think the "Kumbaya" plans are what they are putting through now, in other words, someone's agenda with a lot of magical thinking sprinkled in. Essenmacher is right, there are serious flaws in the process.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

School construction takes time and there are always unexpected delays, starting with the architectural review at the state level -- it is unrealistic to expect that we will be breaking ground soon enough to take advantage of the economic downturn.

Although, if you were really serious about this -- and I'm assuming from your comments that you are someone who was criticized in the above discussion and has a stake in the existing, flawed process (and finding excuses to push the flawed agenda) -- you would see the big savings would be in using the downturn TODAY to buy back the land at Cubberley from the city. They would sell it at a bargain anyway, and even cheaper in these times, when it would solve their short-term budget problems. It would cost far less than just the premium on building multistory at the other campuses.

Convenient for you to blame the "Palo Alto Process" instead of the real, flawed PAUSD process, isnt it? That way logic, fiscal responsibility, and facts don't have to get in the way of a flawed agenda, eh?

(And if you resent living in a community of highly-educated, competent people, be my guest to move somewhere without such a concentration of educated, involved parents. It's not that hard to get away from.)

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 13, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Bravo A Parent,

To those complaining of the Palo Alto process--what other time would there be to complain except when the plans are being presented. It's not late, it's fairly early in the process.

We don't like the plans, so why shouldn't we make that known?

Me Too,

It's not a question of Skelly being "lazy"--your value judgment, not mine. I don't think he is. I do think he favors large schools--at that's completely apparent in what's being presented in the plans.

In fact, given that we've had a dramatic drop in growth at the elementary levels, wouldn't it be cheaper to open Garland as a smaller one-story school? Doesn't seem to even be on the table.

Wouldn't it make sense not to create a permanent huge school at the Ohlone site? It would certainly be cheaper.

Put through another vote if need be that allowed a transfer of funds from building huge elementaries to building better middle schools--because there we do have an issue with having too few campuses and run-down buildings.

And look into a good choice alternative for Cubberly.

Hmmm, I wouldn't say Skelly's lazy, I'd say he lacks vision--he exhibits a short-sighted pragmatism.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 13, 2009 at 6:08 pm

The Board and Skelly are looking at the district long-term with the elementary campuses. The Garland campus needs to hold the maximum amount of students it can for when our enrollment shoots back up again and we all know it will. The SLOW in enrollment (not drop - we still had 3 schools that were over-enrolled) is temporary and the demographer's report predicted this based on birth rates. Maybe not to this extreme because the economy is having a larger effect than it would have otherwise but enrollments will go up again and we need to be prepared for that. I'm sure they'll even need to open Greendell at some point in the future which will make you very happy, I'm sure.

Opening Garland as a one-story school would not be cheaper. They're opening Garland when enrollments are due to increase dramatically in 2012 and they'll only be opening a few grades at a time until they fill the school so it doesn't matter how many stories they build. The two-story option gives the most field space and the most classroom space. It's the best option for the school and the neighborhood.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 14, 2009 at 4:18 pm

OP, I generally like near-term pragmatism vs "vision," since the future tends to be hard to predict. I thought that when you said Skelly opted for the "convenient" solution you meant he was lazy - what did you mean then? Being pragmatic doesn't mean opting for convenience. Perhaps you simply mis-spoke.

Erin, sorry that my examples didn't live up to your requirements. Or at least all of them didn't - seems like some did, since you didn't criticize them (Edina, New Trier, Eden Praire, Newton North). Are those school large yet still good? Edina (2000) and New Trier (4100) were used as comparables in the PIE benchmark study last year. Newton North and Eden Prairie serve communities similar to Palo Alto. What do you think?

My point is simply that if there are some larger comparable schools that are good, then it doesn't make sense to rely on generalized solutions ("the optimal size is...") and we should look at the particulars of our situation. Which is what is sounds like the Board and staff have done.

Could you please stop accusing me of concealing a hidden agenda? I've stated that it is not so, and it is beneath you to repeat it groundlessly.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 14, 2009 at 4:47 pm

Me Too - check the posts. Nothing I said made any reference to your post. Please don't confuse me with anonymous posters. Thanks!

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 14, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Sorry Erin, I saw your name in the post and got confused. "A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood" was the poster I meant to address.

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 14, 2009 at 10:59 pm

Hi Me Too,
I pointed out to you that the consensus of educational research on the subject of high school size (such as review studies that take a look at a statistically significant and comprehensive number of schools, hundreds not just one or two) concludes that optimal size is 600 to 900 students, and that in high socioeconomic status areas, optimal can be as high as 1500 students, but that above 2100, learning is compromised and other important factors suffer. (Right now, Gunn is near 2000, and Skelley wants to spend the Measure A money enlarging Gunn and Paly to take 2300-2500 students rather than gage what the community wants or even compare what it would cost to reopen Cubberley.) I gave you some names of researchers to look up, and suggested where you could do further look up the information, such as the US Department of Education web site.

I called you to the mat on your first two examples, which were both exclusive schools that admit students based only on academic achievement. You wrote back saying, gee, but there MUST be an example that disproves all that research... You gave a list of some large high schools, and I picked two at random to investigate a little. One of them also restricted enrollment based on academic standards, and the other has API scores almost 200 lower than Gunn's, lower SAT's and lower almost everything. That school apparently was split up into a bunch of smaller schools a few years ago because it was too large. At that point, I had already wasted way too much of my time taking your bait.

You don't know what you are talking about, and you aren't even bothering to research your examples. Out of the first four I looked at, there wasn't a single valid one. So now you are asking me to waste more of my time? Look them up yourself. I kind of doubt anything that didn't agree with your predetermined conclusion (such as, oh, comprehensive research and a consensus of researchers on the subject) would change your mind.

Until you actually bother to read and think and consider that you might be wrong, or that even if you do eventually find a single example somewhere -- though you haven't yet despite all the attempts -- I know you're not going to figure out that it doesn't disprove the large body of research on this issue. (Kind of makes me feel like I'm back in the high school planning meetings, only there I wasn't allowed to say anything about the BS.)

Erin is right on this issue, we do really need to add capacity at the elementary level. Enrollment growth has slowed, it hasn't dropped, and it's not expected to drop.

The design at Garland is a very nice design. Erin, I hope you will consider that your perspective as voiced on these forums is very much through the lens of your experience at Garland, and it does not translate.

Also, there is a troubling lack of planning for finishing some of the other construction plans in the district because of funding (and a kind of thinking that the community will always provide when it comes to schools, as has been voiced in board meetings). A lot of extra money has been moved to Garland -- building up is quite expensive for the same square footage, and it adds to the life cycle costs in ways that people often don't anticipate.

Given the choices at Garland, I think I would agree that going two-story there probably is the best choice, and thankfully it's a nice plan. But taking the district as a whole, I'm not sure it's the best way to spend that many millions with the Measure A funds -- I'm not saying it's not, I'm just saying I don't know -- and don't tell me they do have the big picture, because no one has even run numbers on some of the options such as what it would cost to reopen Cubberley instead of enlarging Gunn (and if this could, for example, SAVE enough money to keep the choices that have been made at Garland).

Or if it would be more economical to open Greendell first, for example. I'm just saying there isn't anyone taking a look at how to get us the most for our money overall, there really, really is not.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Jun 15, 2009 at 12:34 am

Parent, it looks like you have made up your mind and counter examples don't matter to you. I'm still not sure why selective public schools are different for this purpose. But just by looking around there seem to be several selective and non-selective well regarded larger schools. But who needs to bother with examples with you've got "the consensus view" working for you? Maybe you'll persuade others, but not sure if you really care about that - venting seems important to you. Good luck in your efforts.

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2009 at 1:52 am

The difference between you and me, Me Too, is that I made up my mind based on the facts and available research. You have made up your mind and for whatever reason, seem intent on believing it regardless of facts.

Schools that selectively admit high school students from large metropolitan areas of millions of people based on academic performance, are in no way comparable to our all-city schools here in Palo Alto and not valid comparisons when we are talking about school size. They are essentially little colleges. I bothered to look into one of your other examples, and it wasn't a comparably performing school. You throw out examples figuring somehow at some point you've got to hit a good one, but that doesn't prove anything even IF you do.

If research shows that the optimal time to vaccinate for some disease is between 6 and 9 months, and that you might be okay up to 15 months, but over 21 months efficacy declines, does citing one instance that someone was vaccinated later but still survived an epidemic prove that wrong? To you it would, based on how you seem to use information. The point is, if research shows the optimal time to vaccinate is between 6 and 9 months and after 21 months efficacy falls off, anyone concerned with the best medical outcomes would vaccinate their patients between 6 and 9 months.

Lets just look at the top ten California schools (at least per the "AP" rank -- Google generated; I'd be happy to look at another list, I"m sure it doesn't matter the exact schools):
1) Whitney 1,000 students
2) Lowell (magnet school, not comparable)
3) CA Academy of Mathematics (magnet school on a university campus, not comparable)
4) Piedmont High 785 Students
5) Mission High 2100 (the largest in the top ten)
6) Gunn almost 2000
7) Oxford (entrance restricted based on academics, not comparable, but <1200 anyway)
8) San Marino <1100
9) Lynnbrook 1800 (growing like Gunn, was 200 less just a few years ago)
10) Miramonte <1500

Saratoga, Skelley's former school and well-regarded, about 1300. Be my guest to look further, but if you report back, report back on everything.

If you continue down the line, you will see that for public schools open to all, the best are typically (or possibly exclusively) 2100 students or less. Gee, consistent with available research on school size and performance.

I'm not sure what your agenda is in trying to avoid the facts and ignore the research (large body of research) -- sorry, but the consensus of research isn't the same as "consensus view" as you call it -- but I'll tell you why it's important to me that this district deals with facts.

Our school quality is why my family and a whole lot of other families sacrifice financially to live in this district. It's why we made very tough choices and threw our lot in this place for the next two decades. I did not make the hard choice to sacrifice further for the Measure A so that Skelley could blow it on some half-baked agenda that is virtually guaranteed to hurt our school quality.

School performance isn't the only thing that suffers in much larger schools. There is less-dense social networks, less community. At some point, there is less participation in extra curricular activities. There is more bullying. The achievement gap widens. (For this type of info, go to the US Dept of Education web site.)

Preserving our school quality preserves our property values, and by extensive, our tax base and our city services. That's important to a lot of us in Palo Alto, too, which is why more than 2/3 of us voted for Measure A, to preserve our school quality, not hurt it.

For everyone else concerned about school quality, Essenmacher's essay is timely. If the audit this summer does nothing to derail this flawed process, then I think a court challenge may be necessary. Or starting a charter high school.

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2009 at 1:56 am

Pls forgive all the grammar and errors-by-spellchecker above. (Again, I did go to a >2000 kid HS!) e.g. Preserving our school quality preserves our property values, and by extensION, our tax base and our city services.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 15, 2009 at 9:51 am

"then I think a court challenge may be necessary. Or starting a charter high school."

Yes, because that would be a fantastic use of our limited resources in this district.

Posted by Charter HS?, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jun 15, 2009 at 10:54 am

Would a charter high school use more resources educating the same kids at quality than handling the issues involved with the current plan of expanding the population at the two existing schools?

I think handling problems at a high school gets exponentially more difficult as its population exceeds its optimum effectiveness level. And additional expenses will show up directly and indirectly.

Palo Alto home environments are generally good for students, but there appears to be a growing schism between those homes that heavily value school success as measured by university admission at big name schools, and those that include school success in a wider range of values and have a softer concept of what school success is.

What if Palo Alto allowed a charter high school that became known less for pressure on formal AP courses and more for broadening the educational experiences for the majority of its students by leveraging the cultural and professional innovation and success in the area?

Wouldn't that leverage interests of parents into assistance and thereby reduce or eliminate extra costs to the district?

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2009 at 11:13 am

Hey Erin,
Before you start the sarcasm -- I realize you are defensive about your involvement on the Garland project, but please stop projecting your experience there on the rest of the district's projects.

Let me first say how ironic it is, given the wastefulness and poor accountability in the high school projects to date, for us to suddenly be talking about a concern for "limited" resources.

If you are concerned about limited resources, could you please point to where I can find the cost/benefit analysis on building up at Garland versus reopening Greendell or other similar options to accommodate the same growth? (I'm not saying building up at Garland isn't the right thing, I'm pointing out that you pushed for what you thought was the best design for your priorities there regardless of the cost or what that meant in shifting money to Garland from other projects, didn't you? So much for your concern for "limited" resources.)

No, a lawsuit is never a great way to spend money. But if it is necessary to save the education in this district and to bring about accountability, then it is necessary. No one files a suit as a first resort. But one thing that lawsuits are good as is shedding light on things that need light in public projects -- things that public servants think they are hiding and are private aren't so easy to hide. When those things have bearing on how hundreds of millions of dollars are spent and with whom, sometimes lawsuits are the right avenue. Sometimes lawsuits are important to stop a project going in a very bad direction -- they can help everyone take a breather and take stock.

If Cubberley could be renovated for far less money than the premium on building up at the other high schools (in order to pack hundreds more students at those schools), and if this then avoids the problems of declining quality and worsening developmental/interpersonal climate for our kids, then starting a charter IS a fantastic and better use of our limited resources.

The great thing about a charter is that you can also take students from other districts if initially people are skeptical. With Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, they took students from other districts for the first year or two. After they demonstrated some of the top test scores in the state while at the same time showing a more welcoming interpersonal environment, the program has had a waiting list of LA residents ever since. LA is lucky the charter was started, their district has had overcrowding problems that they didn't plan properly for, either.

If Skelley is so intent on spending tens of millions of dollars just for the premium on building up at the high schools (on six buildings between Gunn and Paly) in order to pack more students onto those campuses, he should have to show the public "cost/benefit analyses so we can understand how decisions were made" (something Essenmacher pointed out has been completely lacking in the Paly planning and we've seen lacking in the Gunn process).

But if he and the board refuse to be accountable for this very significant decision, the rest of us have to make decisions with the information we have. And from where I am sitting, renovating Cubberley is probably a far better use of the limited resources we have. Since the only leverage concerned citizens have is to start a charter, then we'll start a charter.

Wasting resources? That's from failing to manage the project well, failing to be accountable for how the community wants this money spent, failing to be open with the public about the direction the agenda here is pushing the district, for failing to convey the educational and developmental implications of it (and the cost), for pushing through an expensive agenda that predates in-depth knowledge of our district, for failing to run cost/benefit analyses and what will give us the most of what we want overall for the money.

In the end, a charter high school could save us a lot of money. It could certainly save us from having terrible high schools.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 15, 2009 at 1:17 pm

Look, I asked if anyone could tell me if the processes were similar at the elementary and high school levels and no one has answered me so don't tell me I'm projecting. I can't get an answer. I know Garland is a different school and is using a different architect than Paly but I can't seem to get an answer to find out if the process itself is different.

As for Garland vs. Greendell, the district did look at both and decided that Garland was the school to open based on many factors including the fact that the majority of the growth for the elementary schools has been in the North for many years and currently it is Addison and Palo Verde that are over-enrolled. Garland is the no-brainer school to re-open. Greendell houses Pre-school Family and Young 5s. Again, I don't need to re-iterate all the reasons they decided to go with Garland but it's been years in the making. It's not like someone came up with the idea overnight and no one ever questioned other options. Building up at Garland is the right thing to do even if we do eventually re-open Greendell. It's the best use of space and we need to build to accomodate as many kids as we think we might have.

I think Gunn is the same way. Building a two-story building where the portable "village" is does not necessarily mean you need to have 2500 kids on the campus but don't you want that capability 50 years from now in case your enrollment is so high that you don't have enough classrooms for your kids at Gunn, Paly, AND Cubberly combined? I think building enough buildings to house the kids is the smartest thing we can do while we have the money and the cost of building is cheap. Delaying it just means the current kids will be in squished into portables even longer.

I'm not a fan of charter schools as they take money from the public school system. I don't think Palo Alto will ever approve a charter and I think that's what people who want Cubberly re-opened are hoping for by threatening one.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 15, 2009 at 4:41 pm

First of all, I'm not opposed to Garland being two-story, but what I asked about were the finances.

When I go by Garland, I see a lay-out akin to most of the elementary schools in the district. Why is the facility good enough for a private school, but tens of millions away from being suitable for the district?

Yes, I know, we need expanded capacity, but again, how expanded. What A Parent says about high schools over 2100 applies to elementary schools over 500 kids--more bullying, less sense of community, more kids falling through the cracks. Optimum elementary school size is fewer than 350 students.

So what is it we're paying for here? Why are we spending hundreds of millions on schools to turn them into behemoths when we *know* (and there's ample research on this) that large schools lead to a deterioration in academic performance. The link's between overall size and performance is stronger than that between class size and performance.


You weren't involved in the MI debates. The district doesn't have to approve a charter for it to be approved--which is why the board felt it didn't have a choice about our latest choice program.

That said, charters are onerous for their districts, but PA does have experience with choice programs--and that would be a way to shift some students to Cubberly without the hassle of rezoning.

The two choice programs that I could see pulling in kids are an international baccalaureate program or one that's project-based, student-led. (Advanced Connections or Girls Middle School.) Sort of two ends of the spectrum, but I see both as being attractive to a large number of families in Palo Alto. And, frankly, because they'd be choice instead of charter programs, the district wouldn't have the lawsuit issue that Los Altos is having with Bullis right now over facilities.

It would be possible to start out a small program and then expand--maybe even working out some shared faculty with Gunn and Paly.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 15, 2009 at 5:14 pm

Just because I wasn't involved in the debate doesn't mean I wasn't paying attention and that I don't know what happened.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 15, 2009 at 5:19 pm


My comment was in response to your comment that the district wouldn't allow a charter. What happened with MI is clear example of how just the threat of a charter got the board to change its vote (not to get into MI--okay, MIers?--we'll do that in a different thread), so it's not really a question of the board allowing or not allowing.

You seemed unaware of this, so I assumed that you hadn't followed that debate, particularly as you have young children.

Fact is, the County Board of Education *does* approve of most charters--a charter high school in PA would get approval unless the proposal was utterly disastrous.

Posted by Erin, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 15, 2009 at 7:51 pm

I used the wrong word when I said the district wouldn't "approve" a charter. I only took Honors English at Gunn, not AP English.

I'd love to get back to the original topic and find out more about the differences and similarities in the elementary and high school building plans.

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 15, 2009 at 9:19 pm


No reason to beat it into the ground--but I think we're not that off-topic either in talking about Cubberly and its use or non-use as an option to deal with overcrowding at the high schools.

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2009 at 3:57 pm

If you go back and read the posts, you will see that I did say something about whether the elementary and high school planning were the same. I can't say anything more authoritative than I did because I did not go to the Garland meetings.

Your point here is the most important to address:
"I think Gunn is the same way. Building a two-story building where the portable "village" is does not necessarily mean you need to have 2500 kids on the campus but don't you want that capability 50 years from now in case your enrollment is so high that you don't have enough classrooms for your kids at Gunn, Paly, AND Cubberly combined? I think building enough buildings to house the kids is the smartest thing we can do while we have the money and the cost of building is cheap. Delaying it just means the current kids will be in squished into portables even longer."

You start your long opinion with "I think" -- that's a very important couple of words, because we need facts, not opinions. That two-story building is going to cost around $20 million dollars, plus the cost of moving all the portables into the parking lot for the time it is under construction (I can't remember the cost now, it's very, very expensive). A lot of that new space will be for administration, too, which is looking forward to expanding its space.

If we renovated and reopened Cubberley instead and reduced enrollments at Gunn and Paly to something more manageable like 1500-1700 each, then we no longer need to replace the portable village with a gargantuan village. We no longer have to put the kids in portables, either. Maybe we wouldn't even need those buildings and could just take them out -- Or we could put a new building there in that space to enhance education rather than ensure that Gunn can just be a megaschool for tens of millions of dollars. The new single-story structures are all millions cheaper.

And we can house more kids comfortably by opening the third high school than we can by building up at Gunn. Listen to yourself -- if we end up with more kids than we can house at all three locations?... Building up at Gunn NOW to prepare for that will not solve that problem by any stretch and is less smart than reopening Cubberley (probably for a lot less money), which could take EXISTING enrollment pressures off of the other two schools and position us to absorb an unknown but significantly increased enrollment in the future without having to build more or put in portables.

We could almost certainly renovate Cubberley faster to take advantage of the downturn, AND we could get the best deal on buying back that land from the city.

What is the cost to reopen Cubberley? This is a logical and prudent part of the equation. No one has any numbers to compare. Everyone has been charging ahead with enlarging Gunn because this was Skelley's agenda when he took over. I have gotten insider reports of politics at the district level, and it really is no more complicated than that.

You really haven't been a part of the high school plans. Gunn looks like it has a lot of space, but it turns out you can't build on most of it. If we build this expensive structure (that is taking by far the most Measure A funds) and end up needing to house another 200-300 students, it's going to be a nightmare of portables again, packed in then with expensive two-story buildings. And what educational outcome is this money buying us?

If you talk to kids going to these schools now, they are too crowded. They can't get the classes they want, there's no time to get to their classes, the environment has become stressful and bureaucratic, they can't get time with school counselors. Adding tall buildings is not the answer -- for one, it will actually increase time between classes for those students. And we are now at 2000 students at Gunn, right on the cusp of where quality will suffer (over 2100 hurts learning, even in high SES schools).

If we opened Cubberley as a choice school and had more applicants than available spots (as we always do with choice programs in this district), the district suddenly has much more control over enrollment at all three schools and over quality. Renovating Cubberley could very well be significantly cheaper than building up at Gunn and Paly, and ultimately you can get more students on all three campuses than by boxing yourself in by building up now at Gunn. Admit it, that's an argument you were shooting from the hip because of your bias from the Garland project, which I have already said was handled differently.

Look, you and I aren't going to settle what's best for the high schools by having it out here. The point it, the DISTRICT should be having this conversation with the community as part of its essential decisionmaking. The DISTRICT should have clearly, publicly enumerated priorities, and the numbers to compare, on cost, quality, and other outcomes from the different choices. Skelley's "I think Gunn should be a two-story school" should not be the reason we are spending tens of millions of money extra rather than perhaps spending the money to get better for our kids.

Posted by A Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Oops, always proofread your work:
I meant: "If we renovated and reopened Cubberley instead and reduced enrollments at Gunn and Paly to something more manageable like 1500-1700 each, then we no longer need to replace the portable village with a gargantuan BUILDING. We no longer have to put the kids in portables, either. Maybe we wouldn't even need those buildings and could just take them out -- Or we could put a new building there in that space to enhance education rather than ensure that Gunn can just be a megaschool for tens of millions of dollars. The new single-story structures are all millions cheaper."

I hear a lot of parents and teachers locally waxing poetic from the days when Paly and Gunn were 1100-1200 students. Could we be getting more sane enrollment numbers at each again if we used our money more wisely? We won't know, because the district hasn't bothered to run the numbers. Lots of flaws in the planning process -- I think we need to redevelop rules for how projects are run in this district!

Posted by OhlonePar, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 16, 2009 at 4:27 pm

A Parent,

Really nice post. I think, in general, the whole school-size issue has just been absent from the discussions.

Scott Bowers came by Ohlone to discuss selecting Ohlone's new principal. Someone asked about the number of strands at Ohlone--was it 4 1/2? Would it be six? (First I'd heard of that.) And Bowers gave a non-answer answer.

The size of our schools and the limits just aren't getting discussed. As a result, neither are options like starting a choice option at Cubberly.

The irony of the rush to two-story school buildings is that the district held on to school land--including an entire high-school campus because of future population growth. We have an option that most districts would kill to have and we're not using it to create better schools.

I do see that two-story buildings may have to be part of the solution at the middle schools--because we *don't* have another campus, but if a smallish choice program gave families options, I think Paly and Gunn would benefit.