Wolbach and Fine oppose planning for school impacts from city growth

Palo Alto Matters – May 13, 2017

Maintaining the quality of schools and the sufficiency of local infrastructure to support them are of paramount importance to the Palo Alto community. Nevertheless, the current City Council has shown little interest in either planning to ensure that schools can support Palo Alto’s rate of growth or regulating land uses to accommodate future school expansions.

Instead, the Council majority frequently cites PAUSD’s current decline in elementary enrollment as excuse not to worry about how city growth will impact schools in the future. On May 1, Councilmembers Wolbach and Fine went further, opposing a longstanding City policy to consider school enrollment impacts in land use planning. They argued that school impacts should not be considered at all in the City’s land use decision-making, regardless of current or future enrollment, because doing so could restrain development, making Palo Alto “unwelcoming” to newcomers.

New land use policies will spur population and jobs growth

The new City Council’s preferred land use plan strives for up to 4,420 new homes and 11,500 new jobs in the next 13 years. In significant shifts from prior policy, Council this year has approved policies to assure that multi-family housing will be explored at Stanford Shopping Center, in Stanford Research Park and near Stanford Medical Center. Increased housing density will be pursued in the Downtown and California Avenue areas, and second homes are encouraged on nearly every single-family residential property.

Given the well-known draw of Palo Alto’s outstanding schools, it is reasonable to expect family occupancy of new housing, including small units; even those who don’t arrive with children are likely to stay for the schools as they build their families. This has long been the case and indeed the foundation of Palo Alto’s non-transient, family-oriented community character.

School impacts matter

Palo Alto parents are already concerned about current student overflows to sites farther from home, existing class and school sizes and lasting negative impacts from the School District’s budget crisis. They also are acutely vigilant to traffic and safety issues on school commute routes. Added to commute volume from planned new jobs, additional car trips
associated with school growth could create significant, localized traffic and safety impacts. Sustainably accommodating school growth in a city with limited real estate and transit infrastructure requires careful and cooperative planning by the City and PAUSD.

How many students is new housing likely to produce?

Student enrollment projections depend heavily on assumptions. In setting its new housing targets, the City used best case (i.e., lowest impact – see footnote 1) assumptions to project student growth attributable to new housing. Stanford’s expansion plan (which also used low-impact assumptions) was not counted in the City analysis.

Both PAUSD Superintendent Max McGee and School Board Trustee Todd Collins (former chair of the PAUSD enrollment committee) have expressed concerns that student growth attributable to planned new housing has been significantly underestimated. The following chart shows Collins’ estimation of likely school enrollment impacts as compared to City and Stanford projections.

Todd Collins chart

Chart provided by Todd Collins

Based on historical trends and the City’s 2016 housing projections, PAUSD predicts declining enrollment in the near term. However, considering the magnitude of housing growth currently proposed for Palo Alto and Stanford, Trustee Collins estimates that it could produce as many as 3,980 new students, exceeding the District’s current functional capacity by up to 3,500 students.

How many is 3,500 over-capacity students? Equivalent to:

  • 159 additional elementary classrooms, or
  • 3.5 additional middle schools, or
  • 1.5 additional high schools

Council split on longstanding policy supporting cooperative planning around land development and school impacts.

For years, a policy to “[c]ontinue and enhance City efforts to assist PAUSD in anticipating and addressing land development-related school enrollment impacts” has been embodied in the City’s Comprehensive Plan. Complementing that policy was a program requiring a school impacts assessment prior to making legislative changes to support development projects. While State law (SB 50) prohibits the City from rejecting individual development projects based on school facility impacts, it does not appear to bar land use planning to manage and accommodate school enrollment growth or consideration of community impacts such as traffic and safety.

On finding that this policy and program had been deleted in the proposed Comprehensive Plan Update, Councilmembers Filseth and Kou moved to restore them. The Council was split, with Councilmembers Fine and Wolbach strongly opposed to taking school impacts into account in land use planning. The issue will return to Council for further discussion in June.

Footnote 1: City analysis assumes that 100% of new housing will be multi-family units, the housing type likely to generate the fewest students. During the period from 2000 to 2013, multi- family units grew at a rate of 12% (Housing Element, p. 47). If 100% of the targeted 4,420 new housing units are multi-family, growth in that sector will jump to 41% and multi-family housing will account for 46% of the City’s total housing stock.

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