Closing Cubberley 1979

The Cubberley Closing

Sometimes in Politics, it seems you just can’t win. Some political decisions are such that no matter what is decided, somebody’s going home unhappy!

In 1979, the Palo Alto School Board faced such a political Catch-22. There were 3 high schools in town and one of them was going to have to close…and it was pretty clear that the school that was shut down would have a lot of angry parents, students and staff members holding a serious grudge.

A combination of factors saddled the School Board with such an unpalatable choice. The first was the 1978 statewide passage of the mother of all ballot initiatives—Proposition 13. The enactment of this “taxpayer’s revolt” reduced property taxes and placed a cap (that could only be overturned by a 2/3 majority) on future taxes. It placed wealthier school districts like PAUSD on precarious financial footing. No longer able to rely on the affluent local tax base, the district was $2 million in the red by 1979 and in need of some quick cash.

At the same time that the district was hemorrhaging money, it was also losing students. By 1979 Palo Alto had nearly a thousand fewer students than in 1973, as enrollment plummeted 30% between 1967 and 1979.

To Superintendent Newman Walker, these factors led to an obvious conclusion, one high school and a number of elementary schools would have to be closed. And if that was the case, Walker argued that Cubberley would have to be that high school. The argument went like this: Palo Alto HS and Henry M. Gunn HS were both situated on land that had been originally obtained in “friendly condemnations” from Stanford University. If either of these schools closed, the land would revert back to Stanford for the original purchase price... $358,000 in the case of Gunn and just $26,000 in the case of Paly, which opened in 1918.

That argument carried the day, as the School Board salivated over the $11 million that Walker said Cubberley’s 35 acres might fetch. On February 6, 1979, as Cubberley defeated Gunn by a single point in Varsity basketball on one end of town, Gunn won an even bigger one point victory on the other. In front of 600 persons and numerous TV crews in Paly’s auditorium, the SB voted 3-2 to shut down Cubberley at the end of the school year.

However, things turned out to be a little more complicated than Walker had suggested. Just before the SB final vote, the Superintendent had to backtrack on a key point: Money obtained from a sale of Cubberley could only be put in the district’s general fund if the land was sold to a non-profit or public agency, otherwise the money would have to be used for far more limited “capital expenditures”. In addition, if Gunn was the school to be closed, it was reported that Stanford might not even want the land back.

Now Cubberley defenders saw an opportunity to make their case: Cubberley had a higher enrollment capacity than Gunn, a larger cafeteria and the only equipped space to house classes for the acoustically handicapped and the educable mentally disabled. They also pointed out that Cubberley had been around longer and had a more dynamic reputation as a school of innovation and excellence.

Debate persisted even as Cubberley’s final graduates prepared to receive their diplomas in June. A group formed called “Take Time to Plan” and they took their fight to the courts and on March 30th convinced Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stanley Evans that the SB’s action was subject to voter referendum. The Judge ruled that because a SB’s decision was legislative rather than administrative, it could be put to a voter referendum. The district was now faced with 3 choices: Appeal the decision, rescind the Cubberley closure, or put the whole question up for a costly and divisive citywide election. No one was shocked when they decided to appeal.

On May 30th, 1979, the California Court of Appeals overturned Judge Evans in a 3-0 ruling, siding with the school district and maintaining that school board decisions were administrative. The fight to save Cubberley was effectively over.

In the coming years, the SB’s decision gained more respect. In the Fall of the 1970-1980 school year, 950 former Cubberley students reported to school at either Gunn or Paly with a minimum of disruptions. The old high school became the Cubberley Community Center, still leased today by the district to the city for more than $2.7 million annually.

Over the past 25 years, the center has been the home to an abundance of classes and functions, including Foothill CC, kung fu classes, private artist studios, L’Ecole de Danse, the PA Chamber Orchestra and many more.

In recent years, as school enrollment has risen again, suggestions have surfaced to eventually reopen Cubberley and close the community center. Ironically, this idea has met strong resistance.

Article written by Matt Bowling and published in 2007