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Following fallout with Santa Clara County, Stanford halts conditional agreement negotiations with school district

Emails raise questions on transparency surrounding GUP meetings

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Originally commending it as the product of “positive and collaborative” discussions, Stanford has since decided to withdraw its $138.4 million conditional agreement with Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD).

The University has also asked the County to delay its hearings on the General Use Permit (GUP), with Catherine Palter — Stanford’s associate vice president for land use and environmental planning — citing infeasibility issues and writing that the County has failed to give Stanford a “meaningful opportunity” to provide feedback on approval conditions. The County has stated that it intends to continue with the hearings despite the University’s requests.

The withdrawal comes on the heels of Santa Clara County’s abrupt decision to suspend development agreement negotiations with Stanford, a decision that University spokesperson E.J. Miranda said they were not “officially notified” about before it was made public. Miranda wrote in an email to The Daily that Stanford’s request to halt conditional agreement action was only to be “consistent” with its request to the County that it delay its GUP hearings.

County Supervisor Joe Simitian called the agreement between the school district and the University “regrettable” because the University and PAUSD had violated ground rules in agreeing on a conditional funding deal. At the time, Stanford believed that it did not violate any of the County’s ground rules.

Stanford’s announcement of its withdrawal from the conditional agreement with the school district were preceded by emails released by Palo Alto Weekly on the morning of May 10 that called into question the transparency surrounding the meetings.

Mitigation for the school district

Following months of lobbying by PAUSD officials, Palo Alto community members and parents demanding Stanford mitigate the impacts of its proposed expansion under the GUP, the University and PAUSD announced an agreement on April 15 for a $138.4 million community benefits package to be distributed over 40 years.

The funding would have included $500,000 toward the city’s Safe Routes to School Program for transportation improvements, $15 million for construction of a shared “innovation space” between Stanford and PAUSD and a $5,800 payment to the school district for each new enrolled student living in Stanford tax-exempt housing.

The agreement, negotiated over two days, was initially well-regarded by participants in the process, with PAUSD Superintendent Don Austin commending it as a “model of what is possible when groups take the time to understand each other” and University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne calling the discussions “positive and collaborative.”

The county’s objections

The benefits from the agreement hinge on Stanford and the County reaching their own development agreement and the approval of that development agreement along with the GUP by the County’s Board of Supervisors. This is a condition that Simitian takes issue with, seeing the contingency as a violation of ground rules that the County had established with Stanford for their negotiations.

Simitian has reasoned to the Palo Alto Weekly that the conditional agreement puts Palo Alto students in a situation where they are being used as “bargaining chips” by the University, and that “[the school district was] so anxious to get a deal that they took a non-deal and thought it was a deal. What they got is not a deal. It’s a pretense of a deal.”

This point is illustrated after the County halted negotiations with Stanford the day after PAUSD and Stanford announced their conditional agreement. Because the conditional agreement rests on the outcome of the negotiations on the development agreement — which are now suspended indefinitely — the benefits effectively will not be materialized.

In a previous email to The Daily, Miranda said the University was “surprised and perplexed” by the County’s announcement, especially given that they had “actively encouraged the University to engage with [PAUSD] as part of these negotiations.” Austin also told Palo Alto Weekly the Board of Education that he was surprised by the announcement.

Simitian did not deny their support for bilateral talks between the school district and Stanford, but the binding the conditional mitigation agreement with the development agreement negotiations is “not a good-faith effort” on the part of the University.

“It provides bargaining leverage to the University without providing any guaranteed benefits to the school district,” Simitian, who is a former member of the PAUSD, told The Daily following the County’s decision. “I want to underscore — by virtue of the contingency, there is absolutely no guarantee whatsoever of any benefits to the school district.”

Questions of transparency

Austin emailed the Board of Education on March 29, two weeks before the conditional agreement was announced, informing the five members of a “very productive” two days of negotiations that “put us back on track as partners.” In the email, he acknowledged the development agreement ground rules, namely that the PAUSD and Stanford were prohibited from striking an agreement until April 15.

“We DO NOT have any agreements at this point. They aren’t even allowed,” Austin wrote.

The April 15 date was agreed upon initially by Stanford and the County in January, believing that they would have completed development agreement negotiations by that time. It’s now clear that those negotiations, now suspended, were previously delayed with progress made difficult by, among other obstacles and concerns, the University’s lawsuit against a County inclusionary housing ordinance it claims was unlawfully “targeting” Stanford.

The Weekly reported that the Board of Education proceedings leading up to the April 15 date may not have been as transparent as they should have been. Austin suggested that an April 16 special meeting, with the “single topic” of Stanford, be advertised widely, but not posting the public notice for the meeting until close to 24 hours beforehand. Austin said that the delay in public notice was due to lack of “total confidence” that the meeting would actually occur.

Now, in the wake of the fallout between the County and the University, the future of a conditional agreement between the University and the school district, as well as a development agreement between the County and the University, are unclear. Both sets of talks have been halted, though Miranda reiterated the University’s hopes for further negotiations in an email to The Daily.

“We remain ready and willing to engage in comprehensive development agreement discussions with Santa Clara County, and we are committed to providing PAUSD with the benefits in our conditional agreement through that process,” he wrote.

The article has been corrected; there was no evidence that the April 10 meeting was falsely agendized. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Elena Shao '21 is from Suwanee, Georgia. At The Daily, she is a Managing Editor for News. Outside, she's studying political science. She also enjoys learning foreign languages and is hoping to pursue a career as an investigative and data journalist. Contact her at eshao98 'at' stanford.edu.