Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 1, 2010

Schools look to growth, budget cuts in the new year

Kickoff of 'Springboard to Kindergarten' gives year a happy start

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto schools will open the new year with a fresh dose of childish enthusiasm.

Springboard to Kindergarten, a "crash course in kindergarten readiness," will be launched in January.

Springboard is one bright spot in a new year otherwise dominated by school-budget uncertainty.

With rising enrollment and shrinking revenues, cuts will be necessary even if voters this spring renew and boost the parcel tax that provides 6 percent of the district's operating budget, school leaders say.

Palo Alto's 17 schools are seeking ways to bridge an anticipated $5.1 million "structural deficit" in the district's $154 million operating budget for 2010-11.

"It's a challenge to shrink the budget knowing that 85 percent of it is your staff," school board member Camille Townsend said this week.

"The strength of our program is in our staff."

The school district is seeking the public's budget-cutting suggestions by e-mail at balancedbudget@pausd.org. Officials will gather the ideas for a school-board study session to be scheduled early in the year.

Schools already have saved more than $2 million through an informal hiring freeze, a slight increase in class sizes, swimming-pool closures and reduced food budgets.

Palo Alto does not get additional state revenue even if enrollment goes up because it is funded under the "basic aid" formula, which is based on property taxes.

The district educates 11,565 students in 12 elementary schools, three middle schools, two high schools plus alternative high-school programs and a school at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

In December, Gunn and Palo Alto high schools both earned ranking on U.S. News & World Report's list of "top 100" public high schools as measured by student participation and performance on Advanced Placement tests.

Even with the cuts, renewal of the district's parcel tax this spring is critical if Palo Alto is to continue offering the high-quality program for which it is known, school officials said.

The current $493-a-year-per-parcel levy generates $9.4 million a year, about 6 percent of the district's operating budget. It expires in 2011.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly has asked to replace the current tax with a $589-a-year-per-parcel levy, which would need voters' approval in a May election. The new tax would have a six-year life span and carry an optional exemption for seniors as well as a 2 percent per year growth adjustment to keep up with enrollment growth and cost increases.

Even with passage of the parcel tax, "We're probably going to have to make some choices that are really tough, that we don't want to have to make," school board member Melissa Baten Caswell said in a December meeting.

Amid the budget concerns, the school board last year backed off on a plan to refurbish and reopen the former Garland Elementary School campus, at 870 N. California Ave., as the district's 13th elementary school.

Officials are keeping a nervous eye on enrollment as they significantly renovate the other campuses for expected growth. Funds for that major construction come from the Measure A "Strong Schools for a Strong Community" $378 million bond measure backed by 78 percent of voters in June 2008.

The funds already have paid for major new building at Gunn, and district families will see much more evidence of construction on every campus over the next 10 years.

The new Springboard to Kindergarten starts later this month, when families begin registering their children for kindergarten in September.

At the time of registration, the foundation-funded, trial program will identify 40 children who lack a solid pre-K foundation.

The 40 will be enrolled immediately in a five-day-a-week pre-school running from February until August, when they actually start kindergarten. Activities will stress social-emotional skill-building, the kind of skills Palo Alto school officials view as key to kindergarten success.

Officials hope "Springboard" will prove to be a cost-effective way to narrow the achievement gap — that the crash course will give kids a jumpstart and help to avert the need for costly remedial help in later grades.

"I really hope for these kids that this is it — they will be able to be where everyone else is. They won't need all this intervention later," said Sharon Keplinger, director of the school district's popular Young Fives program.

Keplinger also will oversee Springboard to Kindergarten. Both programs are at Greendell School.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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