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 to relieve overcrowding in our elementary schools 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.
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 by reopening 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 an increasing number of students are being overflowed to other schools around the city because the school board has delayed in reopening schools, despite much discussion and the availability of sites such as Garland and Greendell.
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. Some overflows are necessary, but we should strive to minimize them.
In addition to increased overflows, that delay has resulted in much larger elementary schools than simply don't work as well for kids as smaller schools. Our two largest elementary schools -- Walter Hays and Ohlone -- each have over 500 students. Most of the others have over 400 students each. That leads to more crowded playgrounds, more teachers for the principal to supervise and mentor, and more students for adults to get to know.
More and smaller elementary schools would have other positive effects on the community. While some students need to travel to get to school -- our choice programs are a good example -- many others would benefit from closer schools to which they could walk or bike. Every child that does not need to be driven to school represents one less car traversing our already crowded streets.
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 need to have the same vision and willingness to make decisions to deal with changing reality. That means increasing the number of elementary schools, and considering whether we should open a fourth middle school -- rather than continuing to increase the size of our middle schools indefinitely (JLS and Jordan now have over 1,000 students each).
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.
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 $170 million operating budget. 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.
Property tax revenues that are running well ahead of projections give the school district the flexibility to negotiate with the City in a way that emphasizes Cubberley's status as a community resource and potential school site, rather than treating it as a financial asset for supporting the district's operating budget. That has led to the deterioration of Cubberley's physical condition, and negotiations with the City that are too focused on payments that are a relatively small part of the district budget, and not focused enough on what Cubberley can do for the whole community, including PAUSD students. I will work on the board to refocus negotiations and planning, including a renewed look at the recommendations of the Cubberley Community Advisory Committee.