With its record-breaking number of merit scholars and outstanding SAT test scores, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) does not seem terribly vulnerable to California's public education funding crisis.
But the numbers tell a different story. Enrollment is up, but local tax revenue is flat and state programs are again on the chopping block. As a result, the district's resources have fallen almost $1,000 per student. Superintendent Kevin Skelly has no easy options to shield Palo Alto schools from serious budget cuts.
Let's not be shortsighted about the need to support our local schools, which help support an economically viable Palo Alto. Here are a couple of ways we can minimize the impact of looming funding cuts facing PAUSD. Instead of imperiling core class sizes as the school district adds students while risking teachers, electives and programs, we can invest in our local kids. By donating to the local education foundation known as Partners in Education (PiE), giving up our senior parcel tax exemptions and supporting our children's education, we are making "living" gifts that are guaranteed to leave Palo Alto better than we found it. And that's as good a new year's resolution as we are ever going to make.
Schools are the biggest expense of any community and based on the grim news about school district revenues and state cuts unveiled at a recent school board meeting, PAUSD projects a large structural deficit this year and for the next five years, which will deplete its carefully-planned, unrestricted reserves of approximately $12 million in four years. Then the serious cuts of teaching jobs, programs, staff and the complete elimination of class-size reduction may begin as the district resets its priorities and makes very difficult choices.
Our city's demographics make clear that despite the foresight of thoughtful parents who created a public/private partnership to fund the schools through PiE, the parent population alone is too small to absorb the size and scope of the PAUSD's looming structural budget deficits solely through its donations. Local businesses, parents, seniors, retirees and young professionals need to work together to make up this lost funding. A recent article in the Weekly listed Palo Alto as California's most educated city, where nearly 80 percent of residents have bachelor's degrees and almost 50 percent have graduate degrees. It is not surprising, then, that the other California cities on the list also have the most active private education foundations supporting the public schools.
I grew up in Jonesboro, Ark., in the 1940s and '50s. Those who read John Grisham's novel A Painted House will recognize the time and place. I thought my 400-student high school was great until I reached my senior year and discovered that the school couldn't afford to offer Algebra II, which I needed for college, unless I could convince enough of my classmates to sign up. We came up one short and I learned firsthand what it's like to not be able to take the courses you have a passion for. In the flat, global economy of the 21st century, we can't afford to short-change our kids. We need to ensure they get the best education they can to compete and thrive, including a wide range of courses, languages and experiences. Their prosperity will generate more demand for goods and services and therefore more jobs and healthier communities, including Palo Alto.
My wife Eve and I settled here after I got my MBA from Stanford. We were fortunate to buy a home here in 1967, when prices were much lower and our three kids got a high quality public education for free. With our children grown and out of the area and retirement looming in 1998 our view widened. We thought we might want to leave Palo Alto and for the next two years devoted ourselves to finding a new place to call home. We explored other communities up and down the West Coast from Puget Sound to Santa Barbara. We even looked at towns in Eve's home state of Maine. Long story short, we decided to stay put. We couldn't find any place we liked better. In evaluating other communities we looked at weather and location, but also ambience and values, civic engagement and the degree to which people helped one another, especially the children.
One thing that has always stood out about Palo Alto is the enormous civic pride in our great schools. In spite of the fact that the city is named after an historic redwood tree, the schools are its real crown jewel. For that reason, it's not too late to avert a crisis in Palo Alto public education if the community, and particularly my generation, becomes part of the solution. Start by donating to PiE each year, which is set up exclusively to accept donations for schools to fund and help protect academic electives, technology, music, art, guidance and staff positions from budget cuts. In addition, seniors who can afford it can give up their school parcel tax exemption and pay the parcel tax like everyone else who owns property here. Palo Altans, especially seniors, recognize the boost in property values they get from investing in our schools, making our community such a desirable to live.
The "senior" exemption to the parcel tax that supports Palo Alto schools amounts to a $1.6 million annual gift to our seniors, who claim the exemption on 12 percent of the parcels in our city. The exemption was designed to alleviate the threat of senior poverty, and there are seniors living here struggling to buy food, medicine and necessities. They should keep their exemption. However, some seniors living here don't need it. They are sitting on significant wealth in their Proposition 13-protected homes while enjoying retirement in this wonderful city, but they claim the exemption because they can. My plea to seniors who don't need the exemption is to give this gift back to the children in our community.