Discussion of new schools for Palo Alto gets more concrete | October 12, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 12, 2012

Discussion of new schools for Palo Alto gets more concrete

Board members request 'conceptual comparison' of Garland, Greendell options

by Chris Kenrick

Launching one — or even two — new elementary schools in Palo Alto was at the heart of discussion this week as the Board of Education pondered enrollment data for the current school year.

Board members asked Superintendent Kevin Skelly to prepare by December a "conceptual comparison" of opening a 13th elementary school at the old Garland Elementary School campus at 870 N. California Ave. versus the Greendell campus at 4120 Middlefield Road.

Skelly also is scouting for possible venues for the opening of a fourth middle school.

In addition, he told the board Tuesday, "Not only should we plan for a 13th elementary school, but we should also think about a 14th elementary school."

This fall's enrollment growth was dampened somewhat by a new law, which is gradually shifting the kindergarten birthday cutoff from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1.

But board members agreed that the overall growth trend appears unmistakable.

Total K-12 enrollment went from 12,286 to 12,396 — a 1 percent growth rate compared to the 2 percent seen in recent years.

"We can discuss the annual numbers, but I've come to believe the trend is very stable, and it's time to shift our attention to the noise of annual movement to the trends — and to build our solutions around the trends — rather than hope to have that magic breakthrough that will suddenly make the future more certain and clear," board member Barb Mitchell said.

The district has grown by nearly 1,300 students in 10 years — enough for two elementary schools, half of a middle school and a quarter of a high school, board member Dana Tom said.

"That growth has been remarkably steady over the last 20 years," Tom said.

The district has coped with recent growth by adding classrooms at existing schools and slightly loosening the lid on class size.

The average elementary classroom has grown from 20.3 students to 22.3 students in the past four years.

The last time an entire school was launched was 12 years ago with the re-opening of Terman as the third middle school.

But board members will discuss "next steps" on facilities planning — including the conceptual comparison of Garland and Greendell — at board study sessions scheduled for Oct. 25 and Dec. 18.

Officials have not explicitly ruled out other district-owned sites — including Cubberley Community Center, newly acquired property at 525 San Antonio Road and the old Fremont Hills site currently leased to Pinewood School in Los Altos — as possible expansion venues.

But Mitchell and others specifically asked that the Garland/Greendell comparison be prepared for the Dec. 18 study session.

Ethnicity data contained in the fall enrollment report reflected trends that have been apparent in recent years: a decline in Caucasian enrollment from 54.2 percent six years ago to 48.8 percent this year; an increase in Asian enrollment from 29.9 percent six years ago to 37.1 percent this year; a growth of Hispanic enrollment from 9 percent six years ago to 10.5 percent this year; and a decline in African-American enrollment from 3.7 percent six years ago to 3 percent this year.


Do you favor re-opening Garland Elementary School, Greendell or both to accommodate Palo Alto's growing population of students? Talk about the issue on Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.


Posted by PA Mama, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 12, 2012 at 3:15 pm

This would be such a blessing. Ohlone Elementary is bursting at the seams. I love Mandarin Emersion at Ohlone but the overall school population is unmanageable.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 12, 2012 at 3:18 pm

There is also the old Ventura site. I know it is in a pretty sad state of repair but the YMCA amongst others are using it at present. Does anyone know of the exact legal standing of ownership of this site? I don't think it is exactly owned by PAUSD, but it may be another of these strange leasing agreements with the City.

Posted by JSD, a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 12, 2012 at 6:09 pm

I'm hopeful the folks at 25 Churchill can do some creative thinking (no sacred cows for this phase) _and_ that the parent community will allow them to without (literally or figuratively) shouting them down from the get-go.

Posted by Jan H., a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 12, 2012 at 6:31 pm

When we left the East Bay in 1991, the elementary schools there had 35-40 students per classroom. The situation was horrible, and so little got done in the classroom that the kids were overloaded with 2-3 hours of homework per night to compensate.

When we moved here, we put our son in a private school for a year (12 students per classroom), and did not what we would find if we put our son in PAUSD. We breathed a huge collective sigh of relief at the news of only 20 students per classroom.

All these years later, the neighbors who have children in the same schools our son we t to tell me the situation is 30-plus students per classroom, and climbing every year!

It is hard for a teacher to have much efficacy at that classroom size, even if they are talented educators. By the middle school level, at the age when kids start getting unruly, a class that size is pretty difficult to manage for one lone teacher.

To keep the quality of the schools here at the level PAUSD is famous for, we need a couple of new elementary schools at least, as well as another middle school and probably another high school ( but what to do with all the big rent payers at Cubberley?).

Considering the budget crisis the City claims it has, how will they pay for more schools, other than with a bond issue? The City has frozen police department openings, cut services, but hired a new fire chief for an outrageous salary. Why do they not put education first, like most of the rest of the world? Only four other countries in the world have cut education spending, and they are all in sub-Saharan Africa!

Posted by Fundamental , a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 12, 2012 at 9:43 pm

"Considering the budget crisis the City claims it has, how will they pay for more schools, other than with a bond issue? The City has frozen police department openings, cut services, but hired a new fire chief for an outrageous salary. Why do they not put education first, like most of the rest of the world?"

The city and the school district are separate entities with independent budgets.

Posted by North PA Parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 12, 2012 at 10:11 pm

While I completely agree that new schools are needed, I want to correct Jan H's post. I have children at all three levels of schools. My children's elementary classrooms have 21 or 22 students. My middle schooler has classes between 25 and 30 and my high schooler's classes are all under 30 as well. There are some very popular classes at my son's school with enrollments over 30, but that is certainly not the norm and I've never heard of it in a Palo Alto elementary school.

Posted by Jan H., a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 13, 2012 at 8:09 am

Back in 2008, at the height of the recession, PAUSD announced that the groundbreaking for a new school,they had planned to build was postponed indefinitely due to LACK OF FUNDS. A 56 million dollar deficit was mentioned. Has this somehow been rectified?

Also, the schools that parents in my neighborhood say are too crowded are: Jordan, Addison, and Walter Hays. They consider any number over 28 to be overcrowded.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2012 at 8:27 am

Overcrowding in schools is not just class size. The class size problem has been alleviated to some extent by portables.

No overcrowding is the ratio of land to student. If there is not enough play space, then lunchtime at the elementary schools are being staggered, or certain grades get to use the grass on certain days, or board games are played in multi purpose rooms to prevent crowding in the play areas.

Overcrowding means that the whole school cannot meet indoors for assemblies, or parents cannot find seats at concerts and stand at the door.

Overcrowding means that there are lines at bathrooms at lunchtimes, that kids don't get the exercise at recess and lunchtime, the lunch lines are so long that kids spend most of lunchtime in lines, etc. etc. the list goes on.

Mega schools are not the reason why people moved to Palo Alto schools.

Posted by taxpayer, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 13, 2012 at 8:42 am

Does it make sense for this board to authorize the kind of expenditures we are talking about for two new elementary schools and one new middle school on the basis of poor quality projections and information? At every board meeting, the board members question whether they actually have good info or not yet they are about to spend tens of millions on the basis of those numbers. They don't know whether these new schools are needed or not but they are afraid that if they are, and they don't get them open, then they will be attacked. If they open schools that are undersubscribed then they have nice, small schools and no one is too upset. Do we need these schools or not? They really don't know and they don't find out. One percent is half of 2 percent. So if growth fell by 50% is that "stable"? How can you tell?

And why not Cubberley? They want to continue to extract money from the City to "not develop" Cubberley and that's convenient. But that depends on pretending that the money from the "City" and flowing to the "School District" is coming from somewhere other than the "taxpayer" -- there's only one pocket. Mine.

I want a board to be more informed than this one before they start reaching into that pocket. This board just is not all that competent.

Posted by Go for it, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 13, 2012 at 11:07 am

@taxpayer - the points you raise about uncertainty are quite valid and have been voiced by Dr. Skelly and the board many times. You conclude that the board is "not competent" which I guess implies you think they should be able to figure out the future.

How should they do it? They use consulting demographers (first one, now another) who generally have not been been good at all at calling future trends. They look at all kinds of scenarios. They drag their feet like crazy, for as you point out, once we commit to build, the money is gone.

The only way I know of to gather more info here is to let time go by and see what happens. Do you have other suggestions?

Posted by JSD, a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 13, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Another issue with huge schools is the capacity of (at the elementary level) 1 principal and 2 full-time office staff to meet the needs of such a large community of students, parents, and staff members. If we don't reduce the size of some of our schools, I hope we are prepared to support the administrators at the larger schools in some real way.

Posted by Emily Renzel, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 16, 2012 at 7:13 am

Back in the late '70s and early '80s the School District was closing schools and selling the land for development, declaring that our school population would never again approach 16,000 from the then current 8000 students. The City's General Plan included a policy to retain closed school sites SPECIFICALLY so they would be available in the future if they were needed. The residents of Palo Alto then voted on a Utility Users Tax (which passed by a simple majority as a General Purpose Tax). Over $7 million of that revenue has been passed through to the School District every year since then. In addition the School District has derived revenue from renting the closed school sites. AND the School District has covered over school play yards with at least 98 portable classrooms.

Well, in the 1980's most of Palo Alto's housing stock was built post World War II and was occupied by young families. Those became "empty nesters". In the ensuing 3 decades or so, those homes have been transitioning to young families with school age children. No surprise. The problem is that the School District does not want to re-open the school sites it is receiving double revenue from (rent + Utility tax). So the School Board keeps adding more and more portable classrooms, which, in my opinion are a less than optimal learning environment and which have usurped scarce playing fields. The City, by the way, helps pay to maintain those fields.

The City in the meantime, as one of the post's mentioned, could have less budget pressure if it didn't have to pass through over $7 million of its General Purpose Tax to PAUSD.

This is certainly a PRIMO Case of unintended consequences.