Menlo Park school funding: Bad news gets worse

Local elementary school districts bracing for cuts

Local elementary school districts have been bracing and adjusting for dramatic funding cuts for the next school year as the state wrestles with a $12 billion projected budgetary shortfall.

But the latest indications from Sacramento are that the seemingly prudent budget planning by district leaders may not have gone far enough to address the scale of cuts to be made once the dust has settled in the Capitol.

"Bleak doesn't begin to describe it," state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) said on April 14 during a short break from the Senate Budget Committee hearings on school funding for the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Superintendent Ken Ranella of the Menlo Park City School District sent a letter on April 7 to the school community detailing what bleak looks like: If extensions on soon-to-expire taxes aren't approved, he wrote, projections show that the district can expect a payment from the state of only $588,000 for the fiscal year. That compares with $2.9 million in funding three years ago, and represents an 80 percent funding cut over that period.

Eric Hartwig, superintendent of the Las Lomitas School District, said his district faces similar pain, and worries that without the tax extensions the Legislature might pass new bills allowing lottery money to be withheld from the state's schools, and reducing the guaranteed $120 per student all districts receive from the state.

The four elementary school districts in the Menlo Park area -- Menlo Park City, Las Lomitas, Portola Valley and Woodside, all basic-aid districts -- will be affected by the so-called "fair share" funding cut signed by the governor several weeks ago. That measure will cost basic-aid districts in the state 8.9 percent of what is normally paid to them in categorical funds.

Superintendent Tim Hanretty of the Portola Valley School District said the "fair share" cut will cost his district about $350,000. In an April 13 report, Hanretty said the district may be facing another $225,000 if the tax extensions aren't approved.

But Hartwig said that the state Legislative Analysts Office on April 14 indicated that school districts should prepare for a hit of about twice what was originally predicted should the taxes not be extended. In Las Lomitas' case, that means a loss of $900,000 to $1 million rather than the $485,000 the district originally was told to expect.

Although the cutbacks will hurt, Hanretty said that the Portola Valley district's challenges "aren't as great as some of our neighboring districts." That's because in the last few years, "we saw the future," and took significant measures to keep the district on solid financial ground.

"During the dotcom days, we established a good reserve," he said, adding that the reserve now represents about 16 percent of the budget. If the tax extensions aren't approved, the district will spend from its reserves in the next fiscal year, he said.

"We put that money away when times were good as a rainy-day fund. And it's raining."

Hartwig said the Las Lomitas district has spent from its reserves this school year to compensate for previous state "takeaways." The district has also taken advantage of the state's rule change on reserves that lowered the requirement to squirrel away 3 percent of a district's budget to 1 percent, according to Carolyn Chow, the district's business manager.

The district plans to continue programs at much the same level next fiscal year, thanks to stepped-up donations by parents to the Las Lomitas Education Foundation, Hartwig said. He expressed much gratitude for the foundation support that will allow the district to keep its programs, and an equal measure of irritation that such support has become critical.

"It's unconscionable: Our state wants a first-tier education system on a third-world budget," he said.

In his letter to the community, Ranella said that some of the initiatives planned for the next school year to accommodate the district's increasing enrollment -- such as more counselors, curriculum coordinators in math and English/language arts, and increased staffing for elementary art and music programs -- are now in jeopardy with the prospect of much deeper cuts in state funding.

"If we were to follow through with and pursue all these initiatives, next year's ... budget would be much higher than what would be financially prudent," he wrote. As a result, he said, he will be working with other staff members and the district's Financial Advisory Committee, among others, to reduce spending by another $600,000 in the preliminary budget, he said.

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Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Ironic
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 21, 2011 at 9:17 am

Gas high as hell, colleges reducing enrollment and increasing admission cost, k-12 classes will probably have 40+ kids per class, unemployment still major. As a life-long tax paying citizen I feel like the government has failed me.
Where are all the tax dollars going?
How can they bail out banks but not education?
Whats the breaking point?

Like this comment
Posted by Real American
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 21, 2011 at 10:18 am

3rd world budget? What's that idiot smoking? Our state spends 40% of the budget on "education" but far too much of it goes to bureaucrats and retirees and we can't change it because greedy public employee union thugs control the politicians who stay BOUGHT! It's Menlo Park, one of the wealthiest cities in the country. They do not need any money from the state or federal government.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Apr 21, 2011 at 10:24 am

Why are the school districts ignoring the big cost savings that could be achieved from consolidation?

How many school district does Menlo Park or San Mateo County need?

If every parent wants their own school district then expect to pay a lot for overhead.

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 21, 2011 at 10:44 am

In 2008 (the latest year I could find on the internet) CA spent $9,863 per pupil. That's 23'rd of the 50 states. New York was first spending almost twice at $17,173.

Spending by stats (scroll to the 14th page or so to see the chart)
Web Link

Interestingly if we look at SAT test scores by state California was 23'rd in 2007 (the latest year I could find). New Your was 3'rd (the first and second states also spent way more than CA).

SAT test scores by state
Web Link

You can look for and find other test scores - routinely New York and other top spenders are at the top of the test scores and California is in the middle. It seems we do get what we pay for.

Our local School districts (the basic aid districts) do spend a bit more - I believe PAUSD is about $11,000.

I do not believe this is because of "greedy teachers" or because they are unionized. If teachers were greedy they would leave teaching and go into something that paid better than the $40/year a starting teacher makes.

Like this comment
Posted by Mom of 3
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 21, 2011 at 10:57 am

Teachers are greedy? Now, that's the Laugh of the Day. I have been overall happy with PAUSD teachers. We'd have better and smarter teachers in this nation if teaching paid more. I love children but there's no way I could teach all day or even partially. I think most of the nation would agree it's not easy - just look to the mounds of bad parents out there who have children and don't respect them or even want to spend time with them.

Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 21, 2011 at 11:00 am

We all know school district consolidation will not happen. It's simple: the wealthy/basic aid districts (I live in one) are not going to share their piece of the pie with the less-wealthy districts. The operational cost savings will not offset the eventual redistribution of revenue - which will amount to less net spending per student than what those districts (e.g., PAUSD, MPSD, etc.) spend today.

Like this comment
Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 21, 2011 at 11:01 am

There is one more district in Menlo Park. Ravenswood. Two of their schools are in the City of Menlo Park -- Willow Oaks and Belle Haven -- with 7 more schools in East Palo Alto. And Ravenswood is not a basic-aid district. They don't get their money from local property taxes. It all comes from the state. They are expecting about $5 million in cuts from a general fund budget of about $21 million. And the parents can't chip in to make up the difference like they do in Menlo, Las Lomitas and Woodside districts. If you want to help, go to and contribute.

Like this comment
Posted by Correction
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2011 at 11:04 am

You are reading the data on the SAT test scores incorrectly. The first column show "participation", which is the percentage of graduates from the state who actually take the test. New York was #3 for participation, NOT for test scores. If you sort the data by the actual total SAT scores, you get a very different picture.

New York is 43rd with a total average score of 1478
California is 34th with a total average score of 1513

The page says that the participation level will effect the average scores, with a higher participation level making the average score less, but that is not always the case. Here is the list in order of total score, highest to lowest:

State Participation rate Total
Iowa 4 1807
Illinois 8 1793
Minnesota 9 1776
Missouri 6 1775
Wisconsin 6 1760
South Dakota 3 1758
Kansas 8 1742
North Dakota 4 1742
Nebraska 6 1726
Tennessee 13 1711
Arkansas 5 1709
Oklahoma 6 1708
Michigan 9 1700
Louisiana 7 1699
Kentucky 10 1685
Wyoming 8 1680
Mississippi 4 1677
Colorado 24 1674
Alabama 9 1673
Utah 6 1658
New Mexico 12 1641
Montana 28 1603
Ohio 27 1600
Idaho 19 1599
Washington 53 1567
New Hampshire 83 1554
Oregon 54 1550
Massachusetts 89 1546
Vermont 67 1542
Arizona 32 1535
Conn. 84 1533
Alaska 48 1527
Virginia 73 1520
California 49 1513
New Jersey 82 1499
Maryland 70 1498
Indiana 62 1487
North Carolina 71 1486
Rhode Island 68 1486
Nevada 41 1486
Texas 52 1481
Delaware 72 1479
New York 89 1478
Pennsylvania 75 1474
Georgia 69 1472
Florida 65 1472
Hawaii 61 1463
South Carolina 62 1459
District of Columbia 78 1411
Maine 100 1388

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2011 at 11:09 am

When I read that New York spends more than any other state on education, I wonder exactly what "education" covers.

Does this include paying for cops, metal detectors, night and weekend security guards, etc?

Yes we should be looking at what some districts are forced to pay out to keep the kids safe. We should also look at how many administrators per student a district has, both at the individual school levels and the district levels.

Administrators are so numerous that for an average query at the school office, it takes several people to get you to the person you need to speak with.

Then there is all the red tape and documentation that needs to be dealt with - the recent changes in requiring vaccination proof is an example. How much time, effort and administrators is this taking and how can we justify these costs when education budgets are dwindling?

Like this comment
Posted by Ban-The-Unions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2011 at 4:08 pm

> I do not believe this is because of "greedy teachers" or
> because they are unionized

You're welcome to your own opinion, but virtually every school district in the US spends about 85% of its revenue on staff salaries and benefits--no matter how much money the district has to spend.

In California, the unions have managed to get laws passed prohibiting school districts to outsource many of the jobs that are unionized.

Like this comment
Posted by Ban-The-Unions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2011 at 5:11 pm

> You are reading the data on the SAT test scores incorrectly

SAT is not the best data to use in this sort of discussion, because it is voluntary, and generally only reflects the education of those taking the test. Unfortunately, there are few other tests that are nationwide. The DoEd gives a math and English test in the 4th and 8th grades--

Web Link

These are about the only tests that can provide the basis for a national comparison.

Like this comment
Posted by School Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 21, 2011 at 7:15 pm

Of course, school districts spend 85% on staff expenses. That is OBVIOUSLY their major expense. TEACHERS to do TEACHING!! What else should they be spending the most of their money on?

Like this comment
Posted by Ban-The-Unions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2011 at 10:14 pm

> What else should they be spending the most of their money on?

Capital expenditures, maintenance, technology.

Throwing money away on automatic pay increases without any linkage to student performance has brought us the school systems to the point of bankruptcy.

The US is spending about 8% of its GDP on "education" .. paying ever inflated wages for little in return.

Like this comment
Posted by Consolidate the basic aids schools
a resident of Atherton
on May 30, 2011 at 10:40 am

You have all these tiny school districts with all their superintendents and staff, isn't it obvious you need to get rid of the fat. But I guess you people would rather shut down the schools first and fund your buddy's pensions and fancy lifestyles.

Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 10, 2011 at 12:11 am

I agree with "Real American". The guy who claim Las Lomitas is on a "3rd world budget" if they don't get the aid. That's a joke, it's people like him that has inflated the problem to where it is. It's not about doing the right thing but to protect their "gravy train". Ask him where he lives and if he hires legal employees to take care of this vineyard. Ask him, why does his district need him when there are other districts who have dozens of schools and thousands more students. Bottom line is, the fear and pump and dump tactics these adminstrators and real estate agents put into you uninformed parents is a joke. It's not about the kids, it's about their retirement and lifestyle. Cut the fat, don't let them scare you.

Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Third World County
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 18, 2011 at 10:24 am

That's a disgrace to compare your posh Menlo Park school district with third world countries. You have no idea, for those who grew up or immigrated to the US from a 3rd World Country can a test to what I am saying. The country is in shambles because of people who are out of touch with the real world. Keep spending and growing the gov and admin budgets, those that have to pay will speak come elections and cuts.

Like this comment
Posted by Amazon
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 18, 2011 at 10:34 am

Don't want to pay sales taxes on Amazon purchases? Who do you think gets hurt by declining sales taxes? The biggest item on most cities' budgets is public schools.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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