Larger multipurpose rooms that fit an entire school population, modernized classrooms and improved seismic safety are among the updates that elementary school principals and their communities feel are necessary to bring their campuses up to 21st-century education standards.
But on Tuesday night, two school board members questioned whether these updates, currently in the pipeline at four Palo Alto elementary schools, are the best use of district dollars.
The board discussed what many, including two board members, described as a long-overdue renovation of Hoover Elementary School, which was not updated as part of the most recent Strong Schools Bond. A proposed schematic design would rearrange the campus to allow for a larger multipurpose room, a new administration building, a new outdoor area described as a "town square," an updated library and expanded play fields, among other improvements.
Staff anticipate that the current budget estimate of $23 million will increase by 20 to 30 percent given market conditions.
Numerous Hoover parents and some staff turned out to voice their support for the plan, which was developed by a district architecture firm working with an advisory group of school staff and parents.
"Portables and classrooms at Hoover are old and outdated and not up to the new standards that exist," said Jonathan, a parent. "They're really unfit for Palo Alto… parity and fairness at this point really dictate that it's Hoover's turn."
President Terry Godfrey and board members Melissa Baten Caswell and Jennifer DiBrienza were supportive of the project moving forward. Baten Caswell characterized it as a "no-brainer" issue of bringing an "underinvested" campus up to snuff, including making sure the facility is earthquake safe. (She questioned how much of the campus currently meets regulations.)
"This is not about a beauty standard; this is about being able to plug all the computers in," Baten Caswell said. "This is to make sure if we did have an earthquake, that we would have a safe facility."
Vice President Ken Dauber and board member Todd Collins didn't disagree with the value the updates would bring to the Hoover community but argued the district must look at the project holistically and weigh it against enrollment trends and other financial needs.
Collins noted a recent decline in enrollment and said that as a result there are currently 32 classrooms — the equivalent of two elementary schools — across all elementary campuses not being used as academic classrooms. (At some schools they're "flex" spaces; at others they're being used for music, mindfulness and maker's spaces.)
Collins reminded the board of a 2011 decision to build new classrooms at Duveneck Elementary School because enrollment was on the rise, but it dropped by the time the project was finished.
"I would urge us to step back and make sure we understand — not that just this is next on the list but that we've got the right list and that we've thought through what our elementary needs are, which I don't think we've done," he said.
The district is in the midst of drafting a new facilities master plan that will review those kind of needs, staff said.
DiBrienza said that while it makes sense to consider the project holistically, the updates are not extras but rather "necessary components to have a school in this century and the way that we're teaching."
Dauber asked staff to return with more information on what's necessary to update the Hoover campus, particularly for safety, compared to what might be valuable but non-essential.
Bob Golton, the district's bond manager, said he would, but recommended against breaking the project down to simply bringing the campus up to basic standards.
Dauber and Collins also cautioned against moving forward now with plans for three new multipurpose rooms at El Carmelo, Escondido and Walter Hays elementary schools. At each campus, the new buildings would allow for other improvements, such as adding classroom space and getting rid of portables, said architect Lisa Gelfand.
The three multipurpose rooms are estimated now to cost more than $40 million, also with the caveat that construction bids would likely come in higher. This exceeds the $37.1 million in reserve funds the board recently released for elementary facilities improvements. Staff had recommended the district first pursue the less costly of the projects at El Carmelo and Escondido, leaving more complicated and expensive construction at Walter Hays for later on.
"There is a trade-off to be made between the quality of the project and its impact on a particular school and the impact that could be had on a larger set of students with a less ambitious set of projects," Dauber said. "I think we do need to consider that alternative for these dollars."
In other business Tuesday, the board approved a raise for new interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks, who was appointed following former superintendent Max McGee's sudden resignation last month. She will be paid an additional $68,000 for the remainder of the school year, bringing her annual salary to $295,000.
The board also approved up to $100,000 to hire an interim human resources director to take over Hendricks' responsibilities as assistant superintendent for human resources, the position she was hired for this summer.
The cost of McGee's resignation agreement — six month's pay and benefits through the end of the calendar year — is about $161,000, but the district will save about $286,000 from his salary, benefits and car allowance for the rest of the school year.
The net cost of the leadership transition is $43,000.
The board also decided to strike language from Hendricks' contract — copied from McGee's contract — that prevents board members from voicing "concerns, criticisms and dissatisfaction" with her performance outside of closed-session discussions or the formal evaluation process.
Collins suggested the change, saying that he found the language "cumbersome" when dealing with McGee's performance in recent weeks. Prior to McGee's resignation, Collins and Dauber released short public statements calling for his removal.
Dauber agreed, arguing the clause made it "vexing for board members trying to understand how to communicate effectively with the public without inadvertently creating a contractual issue with the superintendent.
"I don't think it serves the public's interest to have this in our employment contracts," he said.
The other three board members and Hendricks stressed that the board should first voice any performance concerns in closed session.
The board ultimately voted unanimously to strike the clause in question — "Board concerns, criticisms and dissatisfaction with the Interim Superintendent's performance shall therefore be addressed through closed session discussions or via the evaluation process" — and replace it with, "Feedback from the board to the superintendent shall be provided as part of the formal evaluation process."