BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
Neighbors of Escondido and Nixon elementary schools at Stanford gave the Palo Alto school board an earful last night (Aug. 21) over the solar panels that were installed in June at the two schools without warning to neighbors.
“It’s like a big, black tarp was put up on top of the fence. It looks like I’m living under a sports stadium bleacher,” said Ann Davidson, who has lived next to Nixon on Mears Court since 1969. “Some staff have suggested that planting trees might help, but planting trees is not a solution to this problem.”
Davidson’s next-door neighbors, Laurie and Michael Ostacher, said they shared her concerns.
“I see them out my window when I wake up in the morning. I see them looming over me when I sit at my kitchen table,” said Laurie, a clinical social worker at Palo Alto Medical Foundation. “I was not consulted on the decision to place the panels on the fields next to my home.”
Michael, a psychiatry professor at Stanford, said they heard nothing about the panels until around 6:45 a.m. on June 19, when the construction noise started.
“I actually love living next to Nixon School. I love the chatter of the students, the shouts and laughs on the fields,” Michael said. “I can barely express to you how upsetting it is to deal with these solar panels.”
Jennifer Winters, the director of the Bing Nursery School at Stanford, said her school heard nothing before June 11, when the construction started at Escondido next door.
“From our side, it looks like a giant spaceship hovering over our property. Try to imagine how this looks for young children,” Winters said. “It blocks our afternoon sunlight.”
Stanford Associate Vice President Jean McCown took up the cause in support of the aggrieved neighbors.
“It’s hard to understand why your staff did not make any direct contact with these neighbors,” McCown said. “This is very unfortunate. It could and should have been avoided.”
No one from the district went door to door, called or wrote directly to neighbors and instead only notified school-related groups and the Stanford Campus Residential Leaseholders organization.
At a November board meeting, Nixon Principal Mary Pat O’Connell said she was concerned about getting the opinions of neighbors before the panels were installed.
“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.”
Ron Ellis, the district’s manager of maintenance, operations and transportation, 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 school board member Melissa Baten Caswell said at that November meeting that the district needed to do more than post information on a website. She suggested community meetings.
Sparse attendance at community meetings
Rebecca Navarro, the district’s energy specialist, admitted last night that a total of four people attended the two meetings she held about the solar panels in February.
Superintendent Don Austin and several school board members apologized last night (Aug. 21) to the neighbors for the poor communication.
“Regardless of the efforts made on behalf of the school district… (neighbors) were not aware, so as far as process, that’s not good enough,” Austin said. “That has to be better in our future and we’re going to have to work through some things on the back end.”
School board President Ken Dauber pointed out that the district has already seen other issues with new solar panels at JLS Middle School and Palo Alto High School, where the district changed its plan to put up solar panels in front of the 100-year-old Tower Building after alumni complained in May.
“Clearly this many issues with this number of solar panels indicates that we have some process issues to deal with,” Dauber said.