Palo Alto school board members voiced concern Tuesday over proposed budget cuts that would boost the size of ninth-grade English classes, among numerous other impacts.
Gunn High School English teacher Marc Vincenti delivered an impassioned plea to keep class sizes down.
"Every single student added to my English class is, of course, not a number but a person," he said.
"Each young person has a right to claim my attention to what he says in a class discussion, to what she writes in essays, and to his or her tears shed to me after the rest of the class has departed."
Discussing a slate of 25 proposed cuts for 2010-2011 totaling $3.7 million, school board members struggled to find ways to minimize impacts on students and teachers.
Cuts recommended by Superintendent Kevin Skelly included "incremental" class-size increases in elementary and middle schools as well as high schools. But board members expressed particular concern about the high school freshman English classes.
"Our first value is academic excellence, and writing is very important," board member Dana Tom said. "If anything, I would hope to maintain and enhance that critical skill for our students."
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said she understood freshman-English class size is currently 23, but Palo Alto High School Librarian Rachel Kellerman said it can be as high as 28.
Other budget-reduction proposals included saving $600,000 by boosting kindergarten- through third-grade class size to 22, and fourth- and fifth-grade class size to 24.
"Incremental" increases to sixth-grade classes, bringing them to 26, would yield another $240,000.
Board members asked for more information on the impact of proposed cuts to principals' discretionary budgets, from $105 per student to $70 per student. Part of that reduction would be made up by donations from the education foundation Palo Alto Partners in Education (PiE).
"I have questions about how it's going to feel in the classroom with the cuts," Baten Caswell said, echoing the comments of other board members.
School language tutors also asked the board to reject a $92,000 cut to their program. The tutors provide one-on-one services to new students who do not speak English. Skelly said his proposal would preserve services to the "neediest" students, while reducing them for elementary students whose parents speak English and have other resources.
Skelly indicated he would be able to answer some questions at the next board meeting, Feb. 23, when members may also be asked to vote on the cuts.
The district is trying to plug a projected $7.6 million deficit in its roughly $154 million operating budget for 2010-2011. Besides the $3.7 million in cuts, Skelly hopes to make up the gap by using $2.1 million in general fund surplus and $1.8 million in revenue from a proposed increase in the parcel tax.
Voters will be asked in May to replace the existing $493-per-parcel tax with a new $589-per-parcel levy.
Even with the cuts, the district faces a possible $2.6 million deficit for 2011-2012, if current projections hold.
Noting that other California school districts are facing far more devastating cuts, Baten Caswell said, "It's been hard to come up with this list, and it's going to be even harder to come up with the next group."