The self-congratulatory press release issued late Monday by Stanford University and Palo Alto school Superintendent Don Austin brought the intended headlines, leading the public to believe that an actual deal had been reached to mitigate Stanford's future development impacts on the schools.
It boldly celebrated a tentative agreement, not yet approved by the school board, in which the university would pay an estimated $140 million over the next 40 years to mitigate the costs of the school district educating hundreds of students living in any newly built tax-exempt Stanford housing. Most of this would come from annual payments of about $6,000 for every additional student who enrolls in Palo Alto schools, a fraction of the actual $20,000 per pupil cost of operating the district.
To be sure, this is a positive development after many months of Stanford signaling no willingness to do anything like what they have now agreed to do.
But buried at the bottom of the press release was a zinger: The agreement was contingent on the county approving a development agreement governing Stanford's growth over the next 25 years that is acceptable to the university. In other words, by entering into a side agreement with the school district, Stanford bought itself not only a badly needed shot of good PR but a powerful bargaining chip to use in upcoming talks with the county over a development agreement.
Stanford obtained two other concessions from the school district in the agreement: The district is precluded from participating in or taking any position on any other matters involving Stanford's general-use permit application and it must resolve any disputes through binding arbitration instead of the courts. It also fended off the district's high priority request for a site on campus for a new elementary school.
The release of the tentative agreement brought an unusually strong reaction from Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian (a former Palo Alto school board member), who said it wasn't actually an agreement at all since it was conditioned on the outcome of the county's own negotiations with Stanford, which have not yet begun.
Simitian, who enjoys strong political support among the Palo Alto school community, told the Weekly the agreement was "unfortunate" and "regrettable" because it set the stage for Stanford using kids and schools as a political weapon in county-development agreement negotiations.
On Tuesday, he suspended talks between the county and Stanford on the development agreement and announced that negotiations would only resume if Stanford modified its deal with the school district to remove all conditions relating to the county's approval of Stanford's development application.
Simitian's strong rebuke of Stanford and the school board caught both by surprise, or so it seems. But Simitian says he had been very clear in discussions with school board members and Superintendent Austin that any deal between the district and Stanford had to be a bilateral agreement completely independent of the development agreement between the county and Stanford. Otherwise, he said, the county would be negotiating with Stanford on other important issues, such as housing and transportation, with a gun at its head.
Simitian's public ire is out of character for the supervisor, who is normally adept at bringing parties together to achieve successful outcomes, often through personal diplomacy and quiet pressure. And that may yet happen.
The school district brought much of the drama upon itself. The board held a closed meeting on Wednesday, April 10, which was listed on the agenda as "anticipated litigation" against Santa Clara County regarding the adequacy of the EIR on Stanford's development application. In fact, it appears clear that the closed session was to hear Austin describe the status of his negotiations with Stanford and obtain the board's advice and direction, with no public input.
Then on Monday afternoon, Stanford and the school district released a ready-for-signature formal agreement and press release announcing the deal and rushed to hold a special meeting on Tuesday night. These actions clearly communicated to the public that the agreement was a fait accompli, usually the kiss-of-death in an engaged community like Palo Alto.
There is no rush to approving a deal with Stanford and the school board should slow down its process, hear Simitian's concerns at a public meeting and give the proposed deal with Stanford the careful public airing that a $140-million, 40-year agreement deserves.
The community expects to see its elected officials working on the same team to ensure proper mitigation of Stanford's desired development over the next 25 years. And Stanford should be doing the right and fair thing to fully fund the education of students living in university housing without strings attached that seek leverage in negotiations with the county.