News


Updates on the good, the bad and the ugly from 2017

Follow-ups on a megahouse, a murder case, Palo Alto's last dive bar and more

Tony Montooth, owner of Antonio's Nut House, pours his personal margarita mix at the bar. The future of the longtime California Avenue dive bar has been in limbo since Montooth's death in May. Photo by Michelle Le.

News cycles come and go, briefly bringing issues and disputes to the public's attention. Some situations are later resolved out of the limelight, while others remain or evolve. Before 2017 concludes, we wanted to give our readers closure on at least some of the news that grabbed our attention earlier in the year.

Harassed by bounty hunters

As fears and rumors spread like wildfire in March about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents looking for undocumented immigrants in East Palo Alto, a family of U.S. citizens who are Latino were awakened by bangs on their door.

Laura Saldana and Juan Pinto, their children and parents were confronted by bounty hunters searching for a distant relative of Pinto's who had skipped bail at an immigration hearing in the early morning hours. The family believed the men were working with ICE agents, and Pinto captured the first encounter on video.

The family did not know the relative's whereabouts and said so, but the men harassed them repeatedly, demanding to see their documents and questioning them about their immigration status.

By the third time, East Palo Alto police got involved and told the bounty hunters they would be arrested if they bothered the family again.

Pinto said all has been quiet since the police intervened.

Big house, big complaints

Plans for an 11-bedroom, 14-bath home that would replace a one-story home at 1710 Newell Road faced stiff opposition from neighbors earlier this year.

Neighbors feared the home would become an Airbnb hotel, a "hacker hostel," a conference center or an assisted-living facility, bringing traffic, parking and noise to the quiet neighborhood of single-family homes off of Embarcadero Road.

Property owner Fr. Bishoy William, a former surgeon and priest at Archangel Michael & Saint Mercurius Coptic Orthodox Church in Redwood City, asserted that only his family and visiting relatives would use the large home. But neighbors were unpersuaded.

When he submitted modified plans in February reducing the number of bedrooms to six and bathrooms to eight full- and four half-baths, about 50 residents then sent a petition to city planners objecting to the megahome.

According to the Palo Alto planning department, the application for the megahome was withdrawn on April 26. No other plans for the residence have since been submitted.

Evictions from a church

Responding to neighborhood complaints regarding traffic and parking at First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, the city of Palo Alto earlier this year planned to evict multiple nonprofits and businesses that were leasing space as inappropriate uses for the property, in violation of city zoning.

In mid-November, the city received an application from First Baptist for a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that would, if approved, allow some of the tenants to continue their leases as part of a "community center," city Chief Communications Officer Claudia Keith stated in an email.

The city is in the process of getting input from the church, neighbors and church tenants about the application, which will be used when the city makes a tentative decision on the application. The petition is subject to public review.

"We are also granting extensions to some of the tenants, allowing them to stay while the CUP process is completed. All extensions are subject to conditions designed to minimize impacts on surrounding residents, and we appreciate the patience of all involved as we work to address this issue. We are also working on putting together a web page to provide updated information as it becomes available," Keith said.

A pet clinic closure?

The doors of the city's popular 44-year-old spay and neuter clinic remain shuttered. The city abruptly announced a temporary closure in late October, saying at the time the closure was due to a staffing shortage as the shelter goes through an operations transition to Redwood City-based Pets in Need. Meanwhile, the city is referring persons needing the surgical services to other organizations. The city has said it plans to return to full operations after the transition is completed.

"Negotiations with Pets in Need to operate the Animal Shelter is proceeding; city staff hope to have a contract before the City Council in the first quarter of the 2018," city spokeswoman Claudia Keith said in an email.

The future for the Nut House

The May death of Tony Montooth, the owner of Palo Alto's last dive bar, left many patrons wondering what might happen to the beloved watering hole.

Since then, the California Avenue bar has continued to serve its customers in its usual style. But there are some changes, longtime bartender Kelley Gorman said.

Citing a conditional-use permit issued to Montooth in 2004, the city began making Antonio's keep alcoholic beverages inside the building only. Antonio's does house a taqueria that has tables outside, but Gorman said the city is enforcing the no-outside alcohol rule even when people are eating outside.

Montooth's son Jess was planning on taking over the operations, but he has now left. The bar is currently being operated by Montooth's widow, Aloha, and managed by Gorman. She said they hope to freshen up the bar with new flooring and perhaps some paint, but otherwise the bar will remain true to its dive-bar image.

As for its long-term future, that's still in the hands of lawyers working on Montooth's estate, she said.

A murder in Greenmeadow

The sister-in-law charged in a Palo Alto woman's grisly homicide is still in Santa Clara County jail with her case grinding through the judicial process.

Jingyan Jin, 42, pleaded not guilty in May to a murder charge in the death of Jenny Shi, whose stabbed body was found in her Greenmeadow neighborhood home on July 7, 2016. Jin has been scheduled multiple times for a preliminary examination, which would present evidence to determine if she should stand trial. But the hearing has been postponed in part because her case is complex. Some of the witnesses are in China, her defense attorney said.

Jin is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing on Feb. 20 in Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose.

Designing new ways to learn

Following a 2016 kerfuffle over a stealthily proposed, innovative new secondary school in Palo Alto that was to be explored using private grant money, former superintendent Max McGee convened a group of teachers to find other ways to nurture innovation, particularly in the high schools. Dubbed the "Learning Design Team, the teachers were asked to develop "authentically engaging, inquiry-driven educational experiences, programs and classes." (Earlier this year, the teachers presented to the school board an early proposal for a "school-within-a-school" pilot program at Palo Alto High School.)

Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks wrote in an email that the team was recently accepted into the Project-Based Learning Leadership Academy, a collaboration between San Diego public charter school High Tech High, renowned for its innovative practices, and the California Department of Education. The academy brings together educators to create project-based learning programs with the support of a High Tech High teacher-mentor. This year, the program is focused on including diverse students, including through special education, career technical education and traditionally "academic" education, the academy website states.

The Learning Design Team will meet in mid-January to discuss progress and next steps, Hendricks said.

New school names

In the final weeks of 2017, the district announced next steps in its plan to rename David Starr Jordan and Terman middle schools due to their namesakes' leadership in the Eugenics movement in the early 20th century.

A new advisory committee convened this year has taken up the work of recommending new names to the school board and is seeking ideas from the public. This group follows the initial renaming committee, whose work -- a monthslong, controversial process -- resulted in the school board's decision to rename the two schools.

The new committee is made up of staff, parents and community members, including former Palo Alto Mayor Leland Levy and retired judge LaDoris Cordell. The group has met four times since October and has at least three meetings scheduled for January.

The public can submit name ideas at pausd.org. Hard-copy forms are available at Palo Alto public libraries and at all Palo Alto schools. The deadline is Jan. 22, 2018.

The committee is set to submit a list of recommended names at the board's first meeting in March.

Spying on students?

Privacy and security issues came to the fore in early 2017 after a new filtering and monitoring software program, Securly, was installed on take-home laptop computers at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools and Jordan Middle School.

Securly offers web filtering for K-12 school districts. An optional "parent portal" allows parents to customize what their children can view and to monitor their children's web use. Parents can also opt to receive weekly email reports on their children's activity.

While those features pleased some parents, high schoolers voiced concern about the software's implications for their privacy. Members of Gunn's student government formed a task force to learn more about Securly. Advait Arun, Gunn's student school board representative, met with district Chief Technology Officer Derek Moore to discuss their concerns and how the software and the district's Chromebook policy work.

While "we got a lot of answers," Arun said students are "still not completely satisfied."

He said he has heard from some students that some websites, including question-and-answer site Quora, are blocked on their Securly-enabled devices.

"Students definitely still feel ambivalent about Securly and its use," Arun said.

At long last, Cubberley

Plans for a new vision for Cubberley Community Center inched along in 2017, as they have in prior years. The City Council voted 7-1 in September for city staff to issue a request for proposals for consultants to help the city and the Palo Alto Unified School District develop a master plan for the aging former high school.

The school board discussed the request for proposals at a meeting in September, but deferred action until a future meeting. The school district owns the lion's share of the property -- 27 acres -- while the city owns eight acres.

In 2014, the city and the district agreed to modify and extend the lease for five more years, with the understanding that the two sides would use this time to come up with a new plan for the jointly owned facility.

Kristen O’Kane, interim director of community services, said in an email that the request for proposals has closed and staff is currently evaluating proposals they have received. A master plan process will begin as soon as a contract is in place.

Related content:

Webcast: Year in Review

2017: From behind the camera lens

Wild card issues of the year

Quotes to remember from 2017

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Comments

2 people like this
Posted by Innovator
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 1, 2018 at 11:05 pm

"convened a group of teachers to find other ways to nurture innovation, particularly in the high schools. Dubbed the "Learning Design Team, the teachers were asked to develop "authentically engaging, inquiry-driven educational experiences, programs and classes."

The trouble I see for this endeavor, as badly needed as it is, is that our district has yet to make peace with the idea that problems should be solved by working with families rather than torturing them until they (and their problems) leave.

People who are content with their circumstances are not innovators; why would they be? Necessity is the mother of invention, so those who truly need things to change are the best place to empower innovation. The trouble is that PAUSD still sees "threat to the brand" and "threat to my administrative control " rather than opportunity. They want things to develop all nicely nice and only with people they like, so they just don't get out of their comfort zones. And they only want innovation to trickle down from the top, so they don't get innovation. It ends up being just like creativity . Teachers say they want creativity, but researchers find that's because mostly teachers don't know what creativity is, they usually punish it. What they prefer in actual practice is compliance, not creativity.

The other concern I have in the way this is proceeding is that children are still being viewed as blank slates, rather than autonomous beings. There really is no need to wait for something, they could start something on the model of almost every other surrounding district that has independent study and homeschooling programs. This district first desperately needs to get comfortable with the idea that students can and should be in charge of their own educations. Too many kids are just getting worn out and not allowed to develop broadly enough. That doesn't take a new school to fix.

The new program will not work as well as it should under the same control-freak administrative tendencies with a little petty retaliation sprinkled on top whenever anyone gets uppity, I.e. demonstrates the exact traits researchers recognize are essential for innovation.

With that caveat out of the way, Godspeed, I hope you do bring about disruptive change.


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