JCC gets an earful at Palo Alto hearing, but no final answers

The superintendent of Palo Alto schools told an overflow crowd Tuesday that the district's No. 1 concern is "making sure we meet the educational needs of the students."

And just where does that leave the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center on the priority chart? No. 2? No. 3? Even lower?

The answer remained fuzzy after a two-hour hearing at district headquarters.

For the first time in a public forum, the Palo Alto Unified School District outlined six proposals for opening a new middle school by 2003, with each plan having varied impacts on the JCC.

Three of the plans have the district setting up the new school at the former home of Terman Junior High, a site the JCC has leased from the city and called home for the past 17 years.

Two other plans — both of which seemed to gain new life Tuesday — allow the JCC to remain at its current Arastradero Road address.

A final plan has the JCC sharing its current 17-acre site with a new school, although traffic and safety concerns will likely squelch this option.

In a school board meeting following the public hearing, board members expressed newfound vigor for one of the plans that won't affect the JCC, a plan thought to be dead on the vine: putting the new middle school in the foothills.

The proposed site, located on Deer Creek Road near Page Mill Road, is outside of the district's urban grown line and there will be environmental battles to be fought.

But the land — a gift from Stanford — is available right away and the district could be able to construct a modern facility tailored to its needs. Moreover, the district wouldn't have to give away any of its current land.

If the new school is located there, or at the site of the former Cubberly High, then the JCC wouldn't have to move and it could go forward with a planned $11 million renovation of its Terman home.

Sandy Blovad, the ALSJCC executive director, was pleased to see the discussion go in that direction. Most previous talks had focused on dislodging the JCC from its longtime home.

The public hearing was emotionally charged and crowded, with about 100 of the more than 250 attendees not getting chairs.

Palo Alto Mayor Liz Kniss was forced to stand in the back of the room, which was packed like a subway station at rush hour, and City Council member Nancy Lytle spent some of the meeting sitting on the carpet like a kindergartner.

That the room was bursting at the seams was no shock. The issue has turned into a political demolition derby in Palo Alto.

"There is no perfect solution to this problem," Cathy Kroymann, the school board president, declared at the start of the evening meeting.

The much-anticipated session wasn't designed to solve the volatile dilemma, but rather to present the plans and then allow citizens to speak their mind.

Allowed three minutes apiece, many of the speakers used their time to stick up for the JCC, including Barbara Kalhammer, a non-Jew from Palo Alto. "I just don't want to see the JCC short-changed," she implored. Like many others, she wore a bold blue "I support the JCC" button.

But others said the future of the JCC should take a back seat to district concerns and that the city government — not the school district — should be the public entity exploring a new location for the JCC.

For example, a plan to let the JCC pay for and construct a new building, which Blovad estimates would cost about $40 million, on district land was lambasted by many as a foolish giveaway of valuable and much-needed property.

Some speakers expressed support for what was presented as plan No. 1, in which the district claims the Terman site through eminent domain. According to material prepared by the district, the future location of the JCC in that plan "would not be addressed other than providing relocation assistance and moving costs."

Said Blovad: "That spells doom for us."

The school board is expected to mull over the six proposals — and any other viable plans that might magically appear — and vote before the end of September.

"The ball is obviously in the school district's court," an intense but composed Blovad said.

Citing increasing enrollments, the district wants the school to open in three years, and time is running out to make that happen.

"We need a decision within the next month or six weeks," Superintendent Donald Phillips said.

Even so, an uphill battle is expected no matter what plan is chosen.

Several of the plans require Palo Alto voters to pass bond measuresfor anywhere from $20 million to $50 million; other plans could conceivably get bogged down in court; traffic impact studies must be made.

"One cannot help but be struck by the fact that there is no perfect plan," Phillips said.

Phillips' opening comments were sharp and probably made some JCC advocates squirm.

He stopped short of saying the JCC's needs are of little importance, but he squarely positioned the district as needing to care about its students first and foremost.

"Education priorities should drive our facilities needs — not vice versa," he said.

JCC advocates seemed to be split between wanting the JCC to stay put on Arastradero Road and supporting a "land swap" plan.

In letting the district have the Terman site, the JCC would get to sign a long-term lease (Blovad wants at least 50 years) on district-owned land at the corner of Churchill Avenue and El Camino Real, next to Palo Alto High School. The district offices there would be demolished and the JCC would construct a new building.

However, this plan was criticized for further cramping Palo Alto High, for letting the JCC usurp — although not own — prized real estate and for not addressing the relocation of the district offices.

"It's best to just leave the JCC on the Terman site and put the focus on building a state-of-the-art [new school] on land you [the district] already have control of, or on Stanford land," JCC board member Joe Hirsch told school officials. "Don't complicate the matter," he added, drawing laughter.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.