District, Stanford reach middle ground on GUP

The Palo Alto Unified School District and Stanford University are in the process of finalizing the details of a reimbursement agreement regarding Stanford’s ambitious growth plans.

The Board of Education praised the agreement as a positive change from previously icy relations between the university and the district, during a special board meeting on Tuesday.

“There’s not much community going on if we don’t all work together,” board trustee Melissa Baten Caswell said. “Again, I’m optimistic that we can work together and come to conclusions and agreements that will work for all of us.”

The agreement that Stanford University and the district decided upon is essentially the fleshing out of the board’s unanimous resolution passed on Nov. 14 the previous year.

The resolution called for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to request that Stanford pay the district money annually per student enrolled in PAUSD schools and living in Stanford’s tax-exempt housing, as well as set aside land for a new elementary school.

The Tuesday agreement stipulates that Stanford must annually pay the district $5,800 for each student living on tax-exempt housing. This amount will then increase by two percent annually for the first 20 years of the agreement, which is set to last 40 years. 

During the last 20 years, this per-student payment will decrease by two percent annually but will never fall below $5,800, according to the agreement.

During the meeting, PAUSD supt. Don Austin addressed community concerns that Stanford’s $5,800 per student contribution is far less than the approximately $19,000 dollars that PAUSD already spends per student.

“We keep saying $5800, it will never be $5800,” Austin said. “In year three and four when students start to arrive we’ll already be in the sixes … more than likely it’ll be $7000+ for the majority of the agreement. When you combine that with the one-time money that we’re receiving and the entire package, you’re looking at close to $10,000 for each kid.”

The agreement also calls for Stanford to set aside $15 million to build an “innovative space” for district and university use and contribute $500,000 to PAUSD’s Safe Routes to Schools program.

According to Austin, the agreement will bring a grand total of $138.4 million to PAUSD, nearly 32 times the amount the district would receive from only $4.2 million that Stanford is required to pay the district per square foot that it develops.

Community members and Stanford University officials who were present at the meeting also spoke highly of the agreement.

“It seems to me that the agreement really results in benefits of great, great value for our students,” board trustee Shounak Dharap said at the meeting. “The Rolling Stones often have a good quote for this, and at least professionally when approaching negotiations I find this is true all the time, which is, ‘you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.’”

Jean McCown, the associate vice president of Stanford’s public affairs administration, said that the agreement would hopefully lead to more constructive discussion.

“We remain confident that we will reach an agreement with the county that is beneficial to all involved, including the neighboring communities,” McCown said at the meeting.

Parent Teacher Association executive vice president Jade Chao read a statement thanking community members and volunteers for their advocacy efforts.

If the agreement is approved, it will bring to a close a contentious debate over Stanford’s General Use Permit application filed in November 2016.

The GUP requested to add over 2 million square feet of academic space and 3,150 tax-exempt housing units by 2035, according to a Palo Alto Online article.

Because PAUSD does not receive funding on a student-by-student basis, and instead relies on property taxes from the surrounding area, community members worried that the influx of new families into Stanford housing would result in students enrolling in Palo Alto schools essentially for free.

However, according to Austin, negotiations over the mitigation of the GUP with Stanford broke down in the fall of 2018.

“Our initial talks with Stanford, while pleasant, were not progressing,” Austin said. “We weren’t making any actual headway. … We didn’t really get to meaningful brainstorming or dialogue.”

After the board’s resolution on Nov. 14, talks ceased and Stanford entered the development agreement process with the Santa Clara county.

However, in March 2019, Stanford and PAUSD reopened discussions after community members raised concerns about the GUP’s impact on PAUSD schools.

“I have to tell you, that was a happy moment, because it never made sense to me that two institutions so closely intertwined were so unable to reach resolutions and have good conversation,” Austin said.

Austin cited Stanford and the district’s enlistment of a third-party facilitator as making “all the difference in the world.”

“Our third-party facilitator came to us from Berkeley, which I thought was funny, and she was skilled beyond words,” Austin said. “We used an interest-based bargaining approach. … I think throughout the process she made us slow down and take time to first understand and embrace the process before we got into any real discussion.”

The board will vote on the agreement at the next board meeting on April 23.