The Cubberley Closing: A Tough Call
Sometimes in politics it seems that you just can’t win. Some political decisions are such that no matter what’s decided, somebody’s going home unhappy. On the national level thishas been the case for years with unpopular base closings. As the U.S. military began to downsize at the end of the Cold War, committees in
Congress shut down scores of bases, all while congressmen desperately
maneuvered to keep their district off the list. Other times, it’s what’s going in, not what’s coming out. State prisons, toxic waste dumps, nuclear power plants and other community “undesirables” all lead to political squabbling. After all, some people have to sacrifice their backyard and whoever does may not have the same congressman for very long.
In 1979, the Palo Alto Unified School District Board faced such a political Catch-22. There were three high schools in town and one of them was going to have to close --- and it was pretty clear that whichever school 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 with a 2/3 majority) on future taxes. And while the initiative may have been a harbinger of the revolution that put Reagan in the White House two years later, it also put 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 percent 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 this were the case, Walker argued that Cubberley would have to be that high school. The argument went like this: Palo Alto Senior High School
(affectionately known as “Paly”) and Henry M Gunn High School were both situated on land that had been originally obtained in “friendly condemnations” from Stanford University. Walker reported to the School Board that 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 television crews at Paly’s auditorium, the
School Board 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 School Board’s 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 were 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 were 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. And both Cubberley and Gunn supporters broke out the tape measures to argue that their
school was actually closer to the home of the average Palo Alto high schooler.
Debate persisted even as Cubberley’s final graduates prepared to receive their diplomas in June. Supporters of Cubberley formed a group called Take Time to Plan which maintained that the District should reconsider closing any high schools. They collected more than 6,000signatures of those agreeing that the closure decision be put to a citywide vote.
Take Time to Plan also took their fight to the courts and on March 30th convinced Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stanley Evans that the School Board’s action was subject to voter referendum. The Judge ruled that because a school board’s decision was legislative rather than administrative, it could be put to a voter referendum, as stated in the state’s constitution. The district was now faced with three 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.
They made the right move. 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, not legislative. The fight to save Cubberley was effectively lost.
In the coming years as emotions calmed and students moved on, the School Board’s decision gained more respect. In the fall of the 1979-80 school year, 950 former Cubberley students reported to school at either Gunn or Paly with a minimum of disruption. Meanwhile, 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 community classes and functions, including Foothill Community College, kung fu classes, private artist studios, L’Ecole de Danse, the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra and many more. And many of those who fought the closing of Cubberley tooth and nail back in 1979 have come to believe it was the right decision after all.
And in recent years, as school enrollment in the city has been on the rise again, suggestions to eventually reopen the high school and close the community center have ironically met strong resistance from those now loyal to the center. Perhaps in the end the School Board’s decision to close Cubberley was actually a
political winner --- it just took a couple of decades for anyone to find out. 
Our Reader's Memories:
I will always remember Mr. Harlod, My Geology Science Teacher and when we went on a field trip to Hawaii! I am now a teacher and try and make my teaching REAL for my students!
"I feel very fortunate to have gone there. Thefaculty especially was terrific, highly qualified--thebest around. We also had the advantage of TAs who were
grad students from Stanford for many senior courses. Imyself was in the baby beatnick/drama/music clique,but I have the impression that football & cheerleadingwere not very important there, just academics & college prep.
"My memories of Cubberley unfortunately weren't very positive (1968 - 71), but I do have some fond memories of Wilbur Jr. High (1966 - 1969) and its teachers. Certainly those years were exciting, turbulent, eventful, and perhaps difficult? for everyone. I do remember a student organized "sit-in," a special event day during which Mao's book was distributed free of charge, and a prank in which someone put a toilet on top of a school facility. Best wishes and prayers."
-"Joy Fills Me"
"I originally went to Terman Jr. High with the intent of going to Gunn. All of my neighborhood friends went to Gunn. But my Mother transferred me to Wilbur, where I would eventually go to Cubberley. I now live in Dallas and was deeply saddened to hear that Cubberley was no longer a high school. Those hallways hold al ot of memories. I am a professional musician and I remember Mr. Peters and Mr. Hollbeck who taught me how to read and transpose music.
"I went to Wilbur Jr. High and I have fond memories of my teachers there - especially Mr. Neff the English teacher who instilled me with a love of literature and reading. I was set to go on to Cubberley (I think this was for the 1973 school year), but my best friend had moved and was going to Gunn. He convinced me to switch and go with him to Gunn. All my other friends went to Cubberly. After I had started Gunn, my friend then moved away for good and I was stuck at Gunn. To make matters worse my family moved further East near the East Palo Alto border so I had a pretty long commute every day. I remember Gunn as very academically oriented. The teachers were very good and most assumed students would go on to college. The exception was the school counselor. Since I was a poor kid who dressed badly he had the strong opinion that I should go to trade school and tried to get me to forget college and attend a diesel mechanics training program. Luckily I ignored him. Many years later after I had received my
PhD, this same counselor turned up in a graduate school class I was teaching - Ah sweet revenge! Indeed a dish best served cold!"
"I was in the last grad class ('79) and also in the band that played the last "lunch-time gig" in the amphitheater, just days before the final graduation. We formed just for the purpose of playing one of the lunch hour shows and we played just that one show. In honor of Cubberley's passing, we called ourselves "Rigor Mortis." We tried to make our set list appropriate, so, among other songs, we played 'Schools Out' by Alice Cooper and 'Submission' by the then new
Sex Pistols --- the latter selection being in reference to fact that the CA Court had forced us to bow to the school board's 3-2 decision. I also remember a bit of social class warfare surrounding the decision to close Cubberley. For instance, a Gunn student interviewed by a local paper at the time said that Cubberley was the school that should close since Gunn produced doctors and lawyers while Cubberley produced plumbers."
-"The Last Cougar"
"I was one of those unfortunate seniors that had to transfer to PA or Gunn after Cubberley closed. I went to PA and hated it so much that I graduated very early. I pretty much did not have a senior year. I loved Cubberley and it will always be one of those great memories to ponder on. The late 70's were probably the coolest times of our lives."
"My very first job, during my senior year at Cubberley High School, was as a cashier at the Stanford. I was hired by Mr. Nylen, the manager at that time. My first big night was for the premier of Psycho. The line went around the block. I was so afraid that I was going to make a mistake. But at the end of the night when I did my report I was two cents off. Mr. Nylen forgave me."
-Kathie Roberts (O'Sullivan)
"Cubberley stuff.... That Lost World dinosaur had to be a few years later, 1978 maybe. IIRC, we had a photo of it in the yearbook supplement for the 1977-78 year. Also, it may have been a different prank but someone put a toilet seat instead of the Gunn logo on the totem pole around that year. When the whole "Close Cubberley" thing was going on in 1979, Fred Carpenter took out a want ad in the Palo Alto Times advertising "40 acres of prime real estate, contact N. Walker" (PAUSD Superintendent at the time) "
Send Us Your Memory!
Student body officers during the 1969-70 school year. (PAHA)
An out-of-sight page from the Cubberley yearbook.
A page from the Cubberley newspaper, the Catamount.
Graduating seniors at the final Cubberley graduation.
A long hallway at what is now the community center.
Two students after the final Cubberley graduation ceremony.