Securing the Future

We can all agree that our schools are one of the great assets of our community. When we think of our schools, we think first of the people: the teachers, principals, administrators, secretaries, aides, and other staff who bring our educational aspirations to life for our kids. But our schools are also a great physical asset: they anchor our neighborhoods, provide green spaces for play and sports practices, and even provide the occasion for chance meetings among neighbors. We face critical issues in this election around these assets, including how we effectively manage our current and future facilities for our revenues and demographic change, and how we respond to the challenge of preserving Cubberley as a community asset through negotiations with the City of Palo Alto over renewing its lease of the property, which expires in December 2014.walter_hays.jpg

There are two bedrock principles that I’ve come to over many years of being a parent and community member here in Palo Alto -- neighborhood schools are critically important, and we need to manage school facilities with an understanding that they are assets to our whole community.

Preserving neighborhood schools. I remember walking with my son Elliot the few blocks from our house to Barron Park School when he was still only four, telling him that soon we would be walking together to school to start kindergarten. I didn't realize at the time that we weren't actually guaranteed a spot at our neighorhood school. Fortunately, he was admitted to Barron Park. But we need to ensure that we don’t resort to overflowing our students around the city due to poor planning and overly simplistic demographic projections.

In some cases -- like our choice schools -- having kids travel to school makes sense. In most other cases, it doesn’t, and leads to traffic and safety issues as young children are forced to cross busy streets to reach their schools. Community members have purchased a home, as I did, with the expectation of walking their children to a particular school and the school district should honor the expectations that it has set through the drawing of attendance boundaries. The current system of overflowing students, often far from home, can feel like a "bait and switch" to parents who, like me, walked their preschooler over to the playground in their neighborhood, telling their son or daughter about the day when he or she would be going to "big kid" school there.

It's impossible to get this right every time, but we could do much better. The school district needs better skills at long-range planning and demographic projection. We need to develop better organizational capacity for predicting where growth will come, and where it won’t, so that we can build in the right place, and in the right amount.

As a cautionary tale, I’m reminded of what happened in the 1980s. The school board, faced with declining enrollments over many years, voted to close Gunn as a high school and open it as a middle school. JLS would have been sold off and Jordan leased to an engineering school, and the proceeds used to cover the operating budget. Had this happened, we would today have one high school -- at Paly -- and one middle school -- at Gunn. Imagine the city-wide traffic and transportation difficulties that would have ensued as every high school student in Palo Alto converged on Paly.

Instead, a group of involved Stanford economists, parents, and citizens decided to looked at enrollment in kindergarten and first grade, and at trends in housing sales. They ran the numbers and found that enrollment was actually going to be increasing over the next 5 to 10 years. Some of them ran for the school board, got elected, and managed to reverse the school board’s decision before it was too late. And they were right -- enrollment did rise, and it turns out we did need 2 high schools and 3 middle schools, rather than one of each.

We're not facing declining enrollments now -- quite the opposite -- but we have the same need for careful thinking and expertise. If I am elected to the School Board I will work to build a planning capacity for the district -- drawing both on staff and community expertise -- in order to produce decisions about school facilities and attendance boundaries that are better grounded in demographic reality. I will also work to ensure that the school district is participating in discussions with ABAG so that we have input into the regional housing decisions that will directly impact the number of students in PAUSD.

Preserving community assets. My second principle is that the school district’s facilities are an asset to the community as a whole. Everyone who is a parent or student in PAUSD is also a citizen of Palo Alto or one of our neighboring communities. All of us benefit from both strong school schools and strong community, including the kinds of community resources that help to promote multi-generational activities and connectedness.  We should expect that our elected officials will all work together to be good stewards of all of our community assets, and if elected I look forward to collaborative problem solving with the City of Palo Alto. mid.students.jpeg

This principle of community building is under the most stress at Cubberley. The City is paying the district $7 million a year to lease most of the facility -- 8 acres is owned by the City, through a swap for the Terman Middle School site -- and for an agreement not to develop district property for other purposes (in addition, the city compensates pays rent to the district for child care facilities at the school sites). The $7 million lease payment is part of the district’s overall $160 million operating budget, funds the School District is understandably reluctant to lose particularly in the context of looming state budget cuts. The City, on the other hand, faces resource constraints of its own and now has a structural budget deficit and is less able to provide funds to the school district than when the lease was originally negotiated in 1989.

Any plan for Cubberley must be worked out in a larger community context, including through the efforts of the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee. The only route forward that makes sense is one in which the school district and the City sit down together as partners and plan a joint future. That requires enabling the district to participate as a full partner by enhancing its capacity for projecting its budget, its revenues, and its needs for space driven by enrollment. Unfortunately the district doesn’t necessarily have staffing for this -- its expertise is in education, not in planning and demographic projections. That means that the board and senior district staff risk making decisions based on anxiety about making a consequential error, rather than with the benefit of a data-driven and clear-eyed view of the future. The solution is that same as for preserving neighborhood schools. As a board member, I will reach out to the community for technical expertise in planning and demographic projection, so that the board is empowered to make informed decisions based on data. That worked in the 1980s, when we narrowly averted catastrophe. And it will work now.

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