Negotiations between Stanford University and Santa Clara County over the university’s massive development plan came to a screeching halt Tuesday, according to a member of the county’s negotiating team.
County Supervisor Joe Simitian said county negotiators suspended talks with the university at midnight on Tuesday due to concerns over its $138.4 million agreement with the Palo Alto Unified School District, which was announced just hours earlier.
Stanford University, however, said Tuesday afternoon that it had not yet been informed by the county or Simitian of the decision to suspend the development agreement process.
Tuesday’s revelation marks the latest example of how Stanford’s expansion efforts have caused a long, tumultuous relationship between the esteemed university and Santa Clara County.
In November 2016, the university applied for a general use permit to develop 4,017 acres of its land in unincorporated Santa Clara County, expecting to add 2.275 million square feet of academic facilities, 2,600 beds for students and 550 housing units for faculty and staff by 2035.
Over the last several months, the county and Stanford have been negotiating a potential development agreement that would compel the university to offer community benefits to offset traffic and other potential impacts of its housing plans.
During that same time, the university and the Palo Alto School District have been working on a parallel agreement on the same premise.
Late Monday, Stanford announced that it agreed to pay the Palo Alto Unified School District $138.4 million over 40 years — or about $3.46 million yearly — to accommodate hundreds of students that the university’s massive expansion plan could bring to the district.
The agreement, however, hinged upon the county agreeing to Stanford’s comprehensive development plan.
Although the deal might appear to some as a good faith effort by Stanford, Simitian called it a “blatant threat” that used Palo Alto school children as “bargaining chips.”
“If we don’t back off on our expectations about traffic mitigation and housing mitigation and open space protection, then the university won’t offer the tentative agreement that it made to the school kids of Palo Alto,” he said.
“…And I think it’s unfortunate that that is the path people have taken.”
When the Palo Alto Unified School District superintendent called Simitian’s office on Monday to inform him of the agreement, Simitian said he was “surprised and disappointed.”
According to Simitian, school district and university representatives assured him multiple times in recent weeks that their agreement would not be contingent on any action from the county. “Ultimately, that proved not to be the case,” Simitian said Tuesday.
In late January, Stanford and Santa Clara County’s negotiating teams established ground rules for their negotiations.
Those rules specified that the negotiations would only take place between the county and Stanford’s negotiating teams, and any talks with other interested parties shouldn’t result in any deals. The tentative deal with the school board violated that rule, according to Simitian.
Despite suspending the negotiations, Simitian said he would consider reopening the negotiation process if the university signed a “bilateral, non-conditional agreement” with the Palo Alto Unified School District.
“Maybe this is the basis for future discussions,” he said. “But as long as it’s offered up as a threat rather than a serious contribution to problem solving, we’re not going to make any progress on this.”
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Stanford said it did not believe the agreement between the university and Palo Alto Unified School District violated the ground rules.
“As we said in our statement yesterday, Stanford believes this agreement with the (Palo Alto Unified School District) continues a long history of partnership between the university and the school district to provide an excellent education for its students,” Jean McCown, associate vice president for government and community relations, said in the statement.
Stanford and school district administrators began meeting last summer to discuss the potential effects the university’s plan could have on Palo Alto schools.
The tentative agreement, which was announced late Monday, was ultimately reached after two days of discussions with a facilitator, according to a district news release.
As a community funded district, more than 90 percent of its revenue relies on local sources, such as property taxes.
According to Santa Clara County’s projections, the university’s expansion plan would add between 275 and 1,445 students to the district. But due to the university’s tax exceptions, the district would not receive any of the tax revenue to support them.
In November 2018, the Palo Alto Unified Board of Education unanimously passed a resolution outlining three priorities regarding the university’s general use permit:
- Secure funding to support the additional students in tax-exempt Stanford housing
- Obtain a parcel for a neighborhood elementary school
- Receive funding for the construction of the neighborhood school
The tentative agreement, however, did not provide immediate funding for land or construction of a new school.
Jennifer DiBrienza, president of the Palo Alto Unified school board, said Tuesday morning that she would have liked the district to secure land to build a school, but its negotiating team was “at a place where we weren’t getting anywhere with Stanford.”
“I think over time we’ll have a better sense of how much of an impact this is going to have, because we also don’t know how much housing the county and Stanford are going to agree on,” DiBrienza said.
Although the agreement did not include immediate funding or land for a new school, it did provide a number of other offerings aimed at counterbalancing the impact of the additional students.
Those offerings included:
- Up to $1 million for expansion or material costs to help accommodate the additional students at Escondido and Nixon elementary schools.
- $5,800 for each new student who lives in Stanford tax-exempt housing and enrolls in the district
- Up to $15 million for a new innovative facility where students and faculty from the university and district can collaborate on projects
- The promise to explore creating a new school site in the city of Palo Alto along Sand Hill Road in 2032
The proposed agreement required the approval of the Palo Alto Board of Education, which planned to discuss it Tuesday night and vote on it April 23.
District Superintendent Don Austin and the board members could not be immediately reached Tuesday afternoon for comment on the latest developments.
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