Palo Alto school board members appeared underwhelmed this week when presented with a plan to add nearly $2 million of new school staffing mostly new teachers.
The district's finance chief Cathy Mak said she had consulted with stakeholder groups, the district's strategic plan and a previously voted-on set of board values in arriving at her recommendation to add nine new teaching positions, a new librarian, four new tech-support jobs and an additional 2.5 full-time-equivalent workers in the district office.
But board members at Tuesday's meeting appeared to be searching for a greater sense of vision.
"For me what's missing here is the big picture," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
"We have 'x' amount of money that we can spend this year. It would be good to hear what are our biggest leverage points, and is that why these things were chosen? Are these our biggest leverage points?
"Once you divide it up here, it's kind of like spreading peanut butter around."
Superintendent Kevin Skelly acknowledged "there's a bit of peanut butter in this work" but said additions like allowing a high school library to stay open until 5 p.m. "add real value."
New teachers will "provide more differentiation for students, and I know that additional reading specialists will lead to more students being able to read," Skelly said. "We're giving sites some resources that are going to enable them to do this."
Consultations with principals, he said, had helped define the best "leverage points" for the added money.
The $1.9 million in additions amounts to slightly more than 1 percent of the district's $170 million operating budget for 2013-14. The proposal would add 6.05 full-time-equivalent teaching positions at the high school level; 1.55 FTEs at the middle school level and 1.8 FTEs in elementary reading specialists, amounting to 0.15 FTE for each of the 12 elementary schools, Mak said.
Additionally, Mak proposed adding $135,000 for elementary campus supervision, one FTE for high school library staffing, four FTEs in technology support and an additional 2.5 FTEs for payroll and attendance in the district office.
Several members questioned the level of investment in tech support, noting other areas of apparent need, such as reducing class sizes for elementary P.E. and allowing music teachers who travel from school to school to offer specialized sessions.
Before a final vote on the additions, board members asked Skelly to return with a list of the board values they'd voted on earlier, as well as items restored in the budget last spring and information on what school staffing levels were prior to years of cuts that ended in 2012.
"I have no reservations about the merits of these recommendations," board member Barb Mitchell said. "What would be helpful would be to have some context."
Given the widely varying enrollment sizes of elementary schools (Ohlone is the largest at 608 and Barron Park the smallest at 341), Mitchell also said new resource allocations should account for the variation.
"These are not investments that will change something dramatically," Caswell said of the proposal. "We talked earlier in the year about having some investments that would really make a difference, or at least having a vision around that, and I want to make sure there's still an intent of thinking about that."