BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
After an uproar from faculty and alumni, the Palo Alto school board has dropped plans to obstruct the view of Palo Alto High School’s 100-year-old Tower Building from El Camino Real with new solar panel carports.
After removing those two particular solar panels, the board voted unanimously late Tuesday (May 22) night to spend $486,000 on solar panels at Paly, Jane Lathrop Stanford and Terman middle schools and Escondido, Nixon and Ohlone elementary schools.
Keith Paugh, a 1996 Paly graduate, was one of the alumni who wrote to the board in protest of the solar panels.
“I was really actually surprised to hear that it wasn’t a done deal, and that they heard people’s opinions and are adjusting plans accordingly. I think that’s phenomenal,” Paugh told the Post. “I’m no Luddite. I think the addition of solar panels are a wonderful idea. But I do feel strongly about the history of Palo Alto and history of the school and feel that those things are very important to protect, especially as Palo Alto grows.”
But the initial plan to put up solar panel carport canopies in Paly’s parking lot on El Camino, blocking the view of the Tower Building, the arches, the Haymarket theater and the new performing arts center, was revised after alumni spoke out.
Instead, one panel will be installed in the Churchill parking lot and two panels will be placed in the bus parking lot. The district will also look for a place to install the two panels that it removed after a suggestion from Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza.
Some alumni were also concerned that the placement of the canopies would have prevented future trees from being planted in front of the school.
A priceless asset
At Tuesday’s board meeting, Paly librarian Rachel Kellerman urged the board to protect the view of the campus.
“It’s a priceless district asset,” Kellerman said. “We owe it to the city and our wider community to take great care of it.”
The board approved a contract with REC Solar on Nov. 14 to install solar systems at the six schools. A consultant estimated that the systems would save the district $1.2 million in electricity costs over 25 years.
Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak said that removing the two panels reduce the district’s energy savings by $19,000 per year.
Those who wrote to the school board in March 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 contract because it wanted to lock in a price for solar panels. The Trump administration has imposed a tariff on imported solar panels, so there was a fear that prices would increase dramatically.
Critics weren’t against solar
Edith Miller, another alumna who wrote to the district protesting the solar panels, said the solar panel supplier hadn’t been receptive to alumni suggestions of other locations for the solar panels.
Miller is the first of the three generations to attend Paly, a 20-year Paly employee and the founder and chair of the group Alumni Friends of Palo Alto High School.
“We’re very supportive of solar, but these just appear to be so very out of context,” Miller told the Post.
On Tuesday, board trustee Melissa Baten Caswell said she wanted to make sure the facilities committee was involved in the discussion.
“I’m supportive of this recommendation, but I think that it’s not optimal … because the process broke down here,” Baten Caswell said. “I feel like we bypassed the process here. You know, someone had a good idea and we just ran it through.”
Two speakers at the board meeting said they were unconcerned about the view obstruction.
Galileo Defendi-Cho, a Paly junior and a member of the school’s environmental club, ventured that most students and faculty care more about “maintaining Paly’s reputation as a progressive, environmentally-minded school more than they value the view of a building from one angle.”
Deb Goldin, a lifelong Palo Alto resident and 1981 Paly alumna, said she was “shocked” by the opposition to the canopies.
“You get a fine view of the Paly building from the Embarcadero side. Most people I know don’t even know there’s an El Camino side,” Goldin said. “And if you want a legacy that you’re going to leave, you want pretty buildings, or you want environmental consciousness? I want environmental consciousness.”