Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 24, 2012

On Deadline: School districts, education supporters balance dread with hope on Prop. 30 tax vote

by Jay Thorwaldson

Palo Alto schools have felt the bite of the Great Recession and severe cuts in state funding for local districts.

But thanks to healthy reserves much of the severity has missed Palo Alto schools.

Not so in some neighboring districts and districts and schools statewide.

Increasingly, educators and their supporters — in a blend of hope and dread — are looking to the Nov. 6 outcome of Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's bail-out balancing act of cuts and taxes.

Cash-strapped California has made direct cuts to school funding and made "deferrals," cuts that someday will be paid back to local districts. Someday. Most cuts come in the form of reductions in per-pupil reimbursements, to which Palo Alto is not immune.

Since 2008-09, per-pupil funding for Palo Alto students has fallen by $1,355, or 10 percent, while enrollment has climbed by 9 percent, from 11,431 to 12,466 this fall. Any beginning-math student can read the handwriting on the whiteboard.

It's not just this year's cuts that hurt. It's the cut-after-cut drumbeat since 2009 — earlier for some districts — that creates a sense of discouragement and loss that educators don't talk about much, in public at least.

The real cost of the cuts can't be measured only in dollars and lost programs. There are intangible yet real impacts on people's lives: those who chose education as their profession, who spent years becoming trained, and who are idealistically dedicated to quality education.

Yes, there are burned-out, worn-out and not-so-dedicated teachers and administrators.

Yet over years of covering communities and schools as a reporter and editor the vast majority of those I've known have a deep and abiding sense of commitment to their students, parents and the effects of their endeavors.

Now we face a sad new world of diminishing resources, ironically at a time when the cry is loudest to improve education to meet worldwide competition. While statistics-heavy budget reports mention "cutting programs" they actually mean staff, thus increasing class sizes or reducing support services and training.

Those cut almost always are the newest staff, the bright, most enthusiastic teachers. Those are teachers whose enthusiasm is not yet damped down by school bureaucracy, overly entitled parents and critical blogs and tweets — sniper shots from the anonymous undergrowth of today's social-network.

But even Palo Alto's deep reserves of $12.7 million won't last. This year's "flat" budget calls for use of nearly $5.6 million to stave off major cuts if Prop. 30 fails — in addition to $2.5 million in "budget solutions" (translation: cuts).

If Prop. 30 passes, only about $276,000 would come from reserves. But that would be followed by a $2.4 million bite in 2013-14 followed by $5.8 million and $4.1 million respectively in the following two years.

"The estimated fund balance available to mitigate future budget cuts of $12.7 million will be fully exhausted by the end of 2014-15" if Prop. 30 fails, this year's budget summary warns. If it passes, the gap-filler reserves will still be exhausted by the end of 2015-16, unless the landscape changes.

One bright spot is that property assessments already are higher than the 2 percent projected in the conservative budget, at a 5.3 percent increase, but there's a lag between assessments and revenues. Palo Alto also is blessed by $11.9 million from a voter-approved parcel tax and by $4.5 million in donations from a community dedicated to great schools — which relate to high residential property values.

Other districts are not so fortunate. Many residents can't afford substantial donations, and getting a new tax approved is difficult.

Some districts face what one administrator in a sprawling rural county called "horrific" cuts if Prop. 30 fails and there is no equivalent relief package forthcoming from a polarized state.

School districts in the rural region have lost $22 million in the past five years and face losing millions more, including cuts even if Prop. 30 is approved.

Yet the true long-term impact may not be in dollars but in an intangible loss.

"I think there's a sadness. It is demoralizing," the administrator said in a recent conversation. "You know, we've spent our careers trying to ensure that we've got quality education for children, and now we're dismantling programs that make a difference."

With teacher layoffs, careers are being ended as class sizes increase.

"We're seeing the brightest, our youngest folks who are coming into the profession, and they're coming in at a time when we're saying to them, 'We can't continue'" under the longstanding "last-in-first-out" rule.

"What a loss in terms of impact. You're seeing a generation of children who are not getting the same benefit that the generation before got."

That loss may not be fully visible yet to the public — ironically because of the educators' dedication.

"We've made do," one administrator said — adapting to cuts as they arrived to keep quality high. "We continue to make do for kids because ... that's been our passion for the entire course of our careers. ... The public doesn't see a significant difference because we continue to figure it out." In some ways, educators "have been our own worst enemies" by being dedicated and resourceful.

But the added loss of hundreds of dollars more in per-pupil funding could mean shortening the school year by up to three weeks for some districts.

"That's what we could see. And do we really believe that, in comparison to other countries, what we want in the United States is for our kids to receive three weeks less of school?" the first administrator said.

Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly agrees that educators have "worked hard to keep cuts away" from students. "We know times are tough for schools," even though Palo Alto is not as badly off as many other districts, he said.

He acknowledged the impact on teachers and administrators, noting that a former superintendent, the late Don Phillips, faced cuts during his last two years in Palo Alto that were "a tremendous source of sadness" for him — a sadness shared by many other educators today.

"The harder part is that it feels that it's disproportionate, that education is getting cut more than other areas. That makes it harder for educators," Skelly said.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes biweekly blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

Comments

Posted by Nancy Rogers, a resident of Community Center
on Aug 27, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Jay Thorwaldson's important editorial "School districts balance dread with hope on Prop. 30 tax vote" in the August 24th Palo Alto Weekly is a reminder of this quote from Thomas Jefferson, third (U.S.) president, architect and author (1743-1826): "The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance". Thank you, Jay.


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 28, 2012 at 10:56 am

Perhaps our governor and state legislators should have given some thought to NOT passing HSR and finding a way to move that money to education.

Sorry - after the HSR vote, there is no way I'm giving any more tax dollars to the Sacramento spenders.


Posted by Jim H., a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 28, 2012 at 11:18 am

Gov Brown thinks it's ok to spend billions of $ on HSR and then threaten the voters with the closure of parks (wait, what, the park system found $54M?), and hold the school system hostage if we don't pass his tax? Once I start seeing some sort of fiscal responsibility on his part, I'll think about giving him some more of my money.


Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 28, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Unfortunately the posters here are probably correct - HSR will probably cost California's kids their education for years to come.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 28, 2012 at 9:43 pm

Palo Alto Schools have felt the bite of the great recession?!? REally? They seem to be completely and utterly oblivious to any financial hardship in the community whatsoever, as I drive around and see every south palo alto campus getting major MAJOR remodeling.

While that bond funding doesn't come out of THEIR general fund (apparently then it doesn't 'count as spending for them - their excuse for inexcusably gross spending on massive remodels all over town), it sure does come out of MY general fund. Yep, that's right - when I spend $600 a year on higher property taxes for PAUSD remodels, that's $600 a year I DON"T have to spend on higher income tax for schools, PIE funding, and other such niceties that the PAUSD district seems to view as entirely optional (because otherwise if they REALLY cared about funding for the day to day operations, they'd be more prudent with my tax dollars.)

And to top it all off - Crescent Park Dad and Jim H are ENTIRELY correct - this is HSR funding - plain and simple. The legislature and the crook at the top Jerry Brown are holding our kids education hostage so they can say they can afford to fund the horrific HSR pet project for their special interests.

So all in all - not a rats chance that I will vote for ANY new taxes for the state.


Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 29, 2012 at 8:18 am

Parent - Campuses are being remodeled to accommodate our ever increasing enrollment. If we don't build additional space, we need to rent portables which cost money too.

PAUSD has felt the effects of the recession, we are just lucky to have been shielded from much of it. Many/most schools in California do not have librarians, art teachers, pe teachers, music teachers. etc. We have been lucky to preserve many of our wonderful programs - in part due to the community and parents' generous donations to PiE.


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South
on Aug 29, 2012 at 3:05 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

The HSR-education funding connection repeated by posters makes little sense to me.

First, if you are mad at the Governor (I voted no on the original bonds) you can vote for Prop 38, which is opposed by the Governor and directly allocates all the money to education.

I am interested in hearing posters explain how they are voting on Prop 38.


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South
on Aug 29, 2012 at 3:10 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Are posters making the HSR-Prop 30 connection really advocating an in your face vote at the expense of our kids?

What possible good does it do to hurt kids and our economy just becasue you are angry at the Governor (and lots of HSR supporters)?

Prop 98 gurantees that extra money goes at least proportionately to education--probably more so with the payback due schools. The idea that these funds are for HSR is a fantasy.

I do not like the current HSR proposal and will vote for both Prop 30 and Prop 38 for our kids and economy.


Posted by horse, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 29, 2012 at 4:06 pm

They are going to make the cuts to education in any case.
All these props are doing is filling the hole created by those cuts. This isn't additional money being provided for education.


Posted by Gene, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm

The way back for our school kids is to ban teachers' unions, and the implementation of educational vouchers (scholarships).

Why waste money on a fundementally broken system? There is already enough money, by far, to educate our children. Parental choice. It is time to do it!

Vote NO on even more wasteful spending on so-called educational bonds.


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 29, 2012 at 4:56 pm

Stephen for an economist, I will explain.

The money for HSR will come out of the general fund at the expense of education. Money from his new taxes will go to education directly. This will leave no extra money for education. This is called trying to blindsight the voters.


Posted by Me Too, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 29, 2012 at 5:04 pm

"Are posters making the HSR-Prop 30 connection really advocating an in your face vote at the expense of our kids?"

@Stephen Levy - your comment comes across as naive (or idealistic if you prefer). The governor is using the HSR bond authorization (which would never pass today) to buy political capital with his allies/donors (unions, construction firms) and himself. We pay, he and they benefit, and there is nothing we can do about it.

So choking off cash in another area (education) is a logical response. Will it be "at the expense of the kids" - maybe. Or maybe money will be "found" to ameleriorate the cuts, as with the state park department. Or maybe the legislators will stick it to the unions.

What is illogical is doing the same thing - voting for bonds, taxes, over-rides, etc. - while expecting a different result - addressing the core cost issues and the political dynamic that causes them. As others have pointed out, "more money to education" is in reality just funding the underwater pension obligations to teachers - it just provides more time to ignore (and increase!) the problem. Something has to give.


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South
on Aug 29, 2012 at 5:05 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

Two problems with your analysis Resident.

First as I said before you have an easy choice. Vote for Prop 38. The money circumvents the General Fund and goes directly to education. Molly will sue if this does not happen.

Please comment on Prop 38.

Second the order of magnitude is different. When and if all the bonds are sold the annual cost will be approx $600M. Prop 30 raises over $6M and annually and Prop 38 raises closer to $10B.

Finally comment on the Prop 98 guarantee and why you want to stiff kids to spite the Governor.


Posted by horse, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 30, 2012 at 9:29 am

Stephen, you're last line shows you've drunk the cool-aid. Way to be manipulated!


Posted by ol Tom Jeffers...., a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 30, 2012 at 9:42 am

"The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance"

Great quote. Thanks, Jay, Nancy.

Unrelated: the folks who would never vote for supporting education are hiding behind HSR. Don't waste your breath/typing, Stephen. Time is better spent sharing with someone with an open mind. Refute their falsehoods ina public forum -- that's essential to counter the lies for the uninformed that may be reading, but don't waste your time seeking the logic on a spite vote.


Posted by horse, a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 30, 2012 at 10:42 am

Tom, and asking troops to be brought home isn't supporting the troops. Your twisted logic is truly mind-boggling.


Posted by ol Tom Jeffers...., a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 30, 2012 at 11:05 am

"asking troops to be brought home isn't supporting the troops"

???


Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 1, 2012 at 7:56 pm

You call it a "spite" vote. I call it sending a message to Sacramento.

Just as when I get the chance I will vote for the opponents of any of the politicians from my area/district/etc. who voted for HSR (Mr. Gordan and Mr. Brown - you will not be receiving my votes). It is not a spite vote - I am sending a message that I'm fed up with frivolous spending, no financial discipline and kicking the can down the road.

It is time to stop the insanity.

However, if we need to pass another parcel tax to support our local school district, I will give it full consideration - because that will be the *only* verifiable tax that will go directly to our schools. Sacto cannot make a grab at it.


Posted by Gene, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 2, 2012 at 3:41 pm

When the public sector unions, starting with the teachers' union, are banned, I will start voting for school bond issues, again. The best , and most effective approach, is educational vouchers. Charter schools are a good first step to educational freedom, short of vouchers.

We need a California version of Scott Walker (Wisconsin).

We should not be voting for even more waste, fraud and abuse until the structural reform is made.


Posted by Sharon, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 3, 2012 at 9:27 am

"We should not be voting for even more waste, fraud and abuse until the structural reform is made. "

After which, we should be voting for even more waste, fraud and abuse?

Any better example of the need of better education?

- education is is not waste, nor fraud, nor abusive.

ol Tom said it above when he reposted-

"The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance"


Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South
on Sep 3, 2012 at 12:05 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

To the "mad at HSR" posters, please explain how you will vote on Prop 38, which comes from Molly Munger and dedicates the money directly.

To the "the state will steal the money" posters please read Prop 38 so you do not have to take my word for what it says.

It says that for the first years 60% of the funds go to K-12, 30% to repay state debt and 10% to pre school education.

I love the quote posted above

"The tax which will be paid for the purpose of education is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests, and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance"

And would add that invsting in education and our children is the most pro economic growth policy that states and local residents can participate in.

In later years 85% goes to K-12 directly, not the general fund, and 15% to pre school education.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm

I'll vote no on more taxes period. The legislature seems to feel they can find hundreds upon hundreds of millions to spend on bond repayments related to purely frivolous HSR bonds no qualms whatsoever - not to mention the ability to take on the financial risk for the other 95% of the capital funding for HSR (about 60BILLION), because they are charging ahead with only about 5% of the funding needed to complete it - with no line in sight for the rest of the funding.

And at the same time crying AND THREATENING that we have no choice but to decimate funding to schools unless they find more tax money. Only if we fund the schools with new taxes, then schools will be be protected. What they're actually saying is - fund the schools so that the money we just robbed from the state budget for HSR bond payments doesn't have to be noticed as a direct hit to schools.-

(By the way - they have no problem in this recession taking properties and businesses for 500 miles through the hearts of california cities, and using OUR tax dollars to hand those properties over to private special interest - being the developers and the unions - which will all be quite stimulating to the profits of those special interests...

So I'll be voting NO on ALL new taxes while we have this greedy governor and legislature behaving like our money grows on trees, and protecting special interests at the direct cost of our schools.


Posted by frivolous whim, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 3, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Another frivolous argument about HSR - there for thye are voting against education and its benefits the our community, our state and country.

So silly. These selfish posts are by people that wouldn't vote for education anyway.


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