By the Daily Post staff
Some Palo Altans are alarmed by a school district plan to put large solar panels in front of Palo Alto High School, which would block views of the 100-year-old campus.
“The Tower Building, the arches, the Haymarket theater and the new Performing Arts Center is a complex of which all of Palo Alto should be proud. It cannot be hidden by solar panels,” said Edith Miller in an email to school board members. She was the first of three generations who attended the school, was a staff member at Paly for 20 years, and is the founder and chair of Alumni and Friends of Palo Alto High School.
“This proposal needs to (be) cancelled and the placement of the panels needs to be reconsidered,” Miller wrote.
“As Palo Alto grows and changes, historical facades such as the Campanile and front office become even more essential to safeguard,” Keith Paugh, Paly Class of 1996, wrote in an email to the district. “A city without its aesthetic history and character rapidly becomes a soul-less one.”
The school board approved a contract Nov. 14 to install solar systems at six schools including Paly. A consultant estimated the systems would save the district a total of $1.2 million in electric costs over 25 years.
At Paly, the solar panels would be mounted on a canopy that would cover the parking lots facing El Camino Real. Cars would park under the canopy.
The other schools that will get solar panels are JLS, Terman, Nixon, Escondido and Ohlone.
Ron Ellis, manager of maintenance, operations and transportation for the school district, called the solar systems a “super structure” at the Nov. 14 board meeting.
“One of the things we’re finding is that the sheer robustness of this super structure can be somewhat off-putting,” Ellis told the board.
His comment drew laughter at the board meeting.
“When we spoke to a few principals, I was looking out at the vista and saying this is really beautiful. But how would it look if there was this super structure there? So we tried to paint it and put butterflies on it but (we) just couldn’t get away from what I’m going to be looking at. So that’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” Ellis said.
At the Nov. 14 board meeting, none of the board members or district employees talked about Paly specifically, and there were no members of the public who went to the microphone to talk about the solar installation.
But Nixon Principal Mary Pat O’Connell said she was concerned about getting the opinions of neighbors before the panels are installed.
“At some of the schools, the location of the solar panels is perhaps (going to be) in parking lots and in places where everybody says, ‘That’s a great idea. Why didn’t we think of that,’” O’Connell told the board Nov. 14.
But she said at Nixon, the parking lots weren’t a good location for the panels so they will be placed near the school’s recreational fields.
“I’m concerned that we do take reasonable steps to inform the neighbors whose properties are adjacent to that portion of the schools so they have an opportunity to give input,” O’Connell said. “I don’t imagine that they are negatively impacted in any way but I do think that’s part of our usual procedures to try and let people know so they can provide input.”
Ellis said the district would reach out to the six school site councils to let them know about the solar panels, and ask them to post something on their websites.
But Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell said the district needed to do more than post information on a website. She suggested community meetings.
Those who wrote to the school board over the past few days were taken by surprise by the plan to install solar panels, describing the district’s plans as “secret” and “hasty.”
Many said they were suspicious because the board waived its normal two meeting rule to approve an amended contract with the solar panel supplier on Feb. 27. Normally, a school board action is voted upon at two consecutive board meetings, giving the public two opportunities to be heard. But the board voted unanimously to waive the rule and approve the amended contract that evening because it wanted to lock in a price for solar panels. Due to a tariff the Trump administration has imposed on imported solar panels, there’s a fear prices will be increasing dramatically.
The board on Feb. 27 amended the contract it had approved in November.
Baten Caswell remarked at the November meeting that it has taken the district awhile to install solar systems. She recalled a meeting in 2009 with Palo Alto officials.
“The city folks asked us when are you going to look at solar on your school sites,” Baten Caswell said. “At that point (school district bond program manager) Bob (Golton) said, ‘It’s just the cost-benefit’s not there.’ And they said, ‘Isn’t it what you want to represent?’ ‘Isn’t it the example you want to set?’ And I’m just delighted we’re at a place where the cost-benefit is there. Took a while.”
The concerns about blocking the view of Paly come as the school is celebrating its 100th anniversary at El Camino and Embarcadero Road. The Palo Alto Stanford Heritage website says the school was dedicated on Dec. 24, 1918 with a grand march of students and faculty from the first city high school at the corner of Channing Avenue and Webster Street to Paly’s location today.
“The general stylistic image is Italian Renaissance Revival with Byzantine and Romanesque touches,” the organization’s website said. “Where the roof of the theater crosses that of the auditorium, there is an octagonal cupola. The designers received a medal award for their plans from the Southern California Chapter, American Institute of Architects.”