As the debate over whether to build housing at Cubberley Community Center heats up at the city level, the Palo Alto school district — the majority landowner at the Middlefield Road site — is for the most part feeling less urgency about developing its 27 acres, officials said in interviews.
The city and school district are engaged in a joint process to redesign the 35-acre site, with early plans envisioning Cubberley as a "shared campus" with space for a potential new school, a swimming pool, art studios, a gym, nonprofit spaces and other uses. At a final community design meeting in early May, city staff and consultants presented four options for housing at Cubberley, including proposals for housing for school district staff at Cubberley and a district-owned, adjacent site at 525 San Antonio Road.
The city's Parks and Recreation Commission backed last week a memo urging the City Council, which is set to discuss the project Monday night, against including any housing on city land at Cubberley. In the memo, the commissioners recommended that Cubberley be "designated as a public recreation resource to meet our evolving program and services needs over the lifetime of the new Cubberley Community Center." (The memo doesn't oppose adding housing at 525 San Antonio Road.)
The school board does not plan to discuss Cubberley in its two remaining meetings this school year, so the earliest it would come before the trustees would be August. The school board and City Council are planning to hold a joint meeting on Cubberley sometime in August or September.
In interviews, school district leadership said they have not yet taken a firm position on teacher housing at Cubberley and that they still need to gather more information before doing so.
"We're not in a position to decide anything about our appetite for housing at this point," said board Vice President Todd Collins. "We're not in a rush. We just need to do our work."
The board has been generally supportive of the idea of teacher housing, mostly in discussions about a Santa Clara County-led project to build regional staff housing in Palo Alto. In January, the board directed staff to identify a funding source to contribute to the project, which has also been supported by the Palo Alto City Council and other local school districts.
A survey on staff housing the district sent out to 600 employees this spring found that 59% of respondents (who were mostly teachers) are considering leaving the district within the next five years due to housing costs or long commutes. Unaffordable rental and housing costs are the top reasons preventing staff from moving closer to work, the survey found.
Sixty-one percent of respondents said they would be very interested in living in district-owned, below-market-rate housing offered exclusively to Palo Alto Unified employees.
Some board members said more analysis is needed to inform any potential decisions, including looking at the district's retention and attrition rates; comparing past and present hiring pools; and considering alternative models to meet the need for staff housing.
"Good decisions come from evaluating alternatives," board President Jennifer DiBrienza said.
Collins said he doesn't know if he supports teacher housing at Cubberley but that "it would be negligent of us not to consider this option as something that we might do."
Superintendent Don Austin said he's watching the city process on housing at Cubberley but feels no "sense of urgency" to move the district forward at the same pace.
He said he's not opposed to building housing at Cubberley or the San Antonio Road site but that his job is to "frame up the question with the best information we have and then let our elected officials direct our efforts."
One board member, however, thinks the district needs to be more proactive on an issue that many Bay Area school districts are already taking action on.
Board member Shounak Dharap plans to advocate for teacher housing at Cubberley, which he said makes even more sense than the county-led project given that it's public, district-owned land.
"If we really want to attract and retain quality teachers then we're going to have to build housing," he told the Weekly. "There's no question about it."
He keeps a list of local school districts and county education offices that are already building or discussing affordable housing for teachers and staff, including the Mountain View-Whisman School District (whose board recently approved a deal with a developer to reserve more than 100 affordable units exclusively for teachers and school staff at an apartment building), Los Altos School District, San Francisco Unified School District and San Jose Unified School District. Local examples offer both information on what Palo Alto Unified could potentially pursue on staff housing and caution that "if we're not offering the same benefits ... we're going to be left behind." Dharap said.
Gail Price, a former board member and city councilwoman, and Steven Lee, a Palo Alto Human Relations commissioner and Midtown Residents Association steering committee member, penned last week a guest opinion in the Palo Alto Weekly in support of teacher housing at Cubberley.
"The City and School District should not prematurely take teacher housing off the table without fully engaging our community," they wrote. "We ask that the City and School District take just a couple more months to conduct additional and broader community outreach and complete a financial analysis to inform how we can make teacher housing work at Cubberley."
Dharap said he's heard from community members who are concerned about the potential traffic and safety impacts of adding housing at Cubberley and wants to address those concerns as part of the public process. He disagreed with the Parks and Recreation Commission's position that housing conflicts with recreational amenities.
"I think we need the political will and the community will to really push forward with the idea of supporting teacher housing," he said. "It doesn't have to be exclusive of using Cubberley for a community purpose. I think a dual purpose is completely attainable."