Palo Alto school board ratifies goals

Budget officer warns of major new costs to fund teacher, employee pensions

The Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday unanimously ratified five goals for the new school year that reflect the assessment of new Superintendent Glenn "Max" McGee on where the district needs to go.

Drafted by McGee after lengthy discussions with board, staff and community members, the goals touch on the sensitive balance between district-wide consistency and school site autonomy as well as a need for a communications strategy that gets ahead of "potentially distracting and disruptive issues."

In late additions to the "measures and deliverables" associated with the goals, McGee specifically addressed two areas that have sparked persistent complaints and difficulties, calling for an analysis and report on "course consistency within and between high schools" when it comes to areas like grading, homework and expectations, as well as for a board presentation on bullying that includes data on incidents and case disposition.

McGee's goals also stressed the need for credible evaluation of the effectiveness of programs, even popular ones such as the new Maker Space at Barron Park Elementary School.

"Everybody likes a shiny new object, but we need to evaluate that, too," he said.

Central to McGee's plans are development of a new district website, which will be the task of newly appointed Chief Technology Officer Derek Moore. In a nod to more district-wide consistency, the new superintendent has called for individual school websites to adopt a common home-page template, enabling them to "illustrate individual messages while maintaining a common 'look and feel' as well as using specific language from the district's mission and vision statements."

McGee also called for possible external review of selected programs to assess their efficacy. Asked by board Vice-President Melissa Baten Caswell which programs he had in mind for review, McGee responded that he was considering "world languages, K-12, and maybe mathematics, if we keep hearing about it."

Board members lauded the goals and expressed appreciation to McGee for making the rounds of school functions to listen to parents and explain his vision.

"These capture the aspirations of our community very well," Board President Barb Mitchell said. "You've been a great spokesperson in articulating these goals and the purpose and value of them. I think it's resonating."

In other business Tuesday, board members were warned that new measures in Sacramento to address the state's $74 billion-plus unfunded school pension liability would create a significant drag on the district's $185.6 million budget.

An increase in dues to the California State Teachers Retirement System (CALSTRS) and to the California Public Employees Retirement Sytem (CALPERS) will cost the district an additional $2.1 million each year from 2015-16 to 2019-20, as well as an additional $682,000 in the current year and an additional $1 million in 2020-21, said the district's Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak.

"This year we need to exercise caution in making ongoing commitments because we have significant increases in pension costs, plus the Cubberley lease (renewal) with the city," Mak said. "We're still not clear what the renewal will be and it (the Cubberley lease) currently brings in about $7.2 million to our budget, a significant chunk. Any significant changes to the renewal will also impact our budget in future years."

As a so-called "basic aid" district, Palo Alto relies primarily on property tax to fund schools. Property-tax revenues account for 71 percent of the current budget, while state funds have dropped to less than 10 percent. The local parcel tax and donated funds also have grown as a share of the budget, Mak said.

While property tax revenues grew by a robust 7.27 percent in 2013-14, they cannot necessarily be counted on to go up every year, Mak said. In her annual budget projections, Mak typically assumes a 3 percent growth in property-tax receipts.

"The dramatic increase in pension liability that the district is responsible for starting this year is not one-time funds," Mitchell said.

"It will be an ongoing increase of $10 million a year, once we get to that sixth year, over our current obligation that will completely erase the contribution the state is making to our school district, and it will have a huge impact on our long-term projections."

In a separate item following the discussion on pension liability, the board unanimously passed a resolution objecting to new state legislative restrictions on the amount of reserve funds school districts are allowed to carry. Palo Alto currently maintains a reserve of at least 10 percent of general-fund expenditures.

In other business Tuesday, the board received a report summarizing the 2013-14 activities of the nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services, which provides on-campus counseling in many Palo Alto schools.

"Compared to the same period last year, we have seen a 17 percent overall increase in PAUSD clients, and a 21 percent increase in those clients who are Palo Alto residents," ACS Executive Director Philippe Rey wrote in a letter to McGee and board members.

The group's on-campus programs served 3,779 students, parents and community members through depression screenings and therapy (1,201); support groups (353); and education (2,225), Rey said.

The top five "presenting issues" in Palo Alto were academic stress, communication with parents, peer relationships, school performance and anxiety, Rey said.

Other issues included depression, self-esteem, divorce/single-parent issues, isolation and withdrawal, cross-cultural issues, suicidality, joint-custody issues, body-image issues, anger management, grief and loss and bullying, he said.

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1 person likes this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 12:50 pm

We desperately need to get a text alert system for parents and students. At present the only thing that can be done is email. Many people do not check emails until the end of the day and that could be too late to prevent a student going to school when there is a big problem, or for parents who need to be alerted to a major problem during the school day. Texting all students and all parents would work as everyone tends to read a text on their phone straight away.

If there was say a fire at a school at 7.00 am, there is no way of alerting students to tell them not to turn up. Or if there was one at say 11.00 am there is no way to alert parents that they have to go and pick up their kids from school.

Getting a text alert system into each school and into the district is a sensible and important goal asap.

Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Dramatical? Huh. Didn't know that was a word. [Portion removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Kim
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 10, 2014 at 3:03 pm

Huge increase in counseling clients. Top concern is academic stress. When will this town wake up?

[Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Paly Parent,

Schoology, the Learning Management System, that is used by all PAUSD schools
already has an system of posting updates/notes (like social media) to parents,
students, or customized groups. The only problem is that the school staff is
not well-educated to use it effectively.
Remind101 is also a system that is used by some to alert students.

No need to invent a new one. Get PAUSD to educate staff & teachers and
enforce consistent use of Schoology, or replace it with an LMS that they
can all use.

Like this comment
Posted by proud pausd mom
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 25, 2014 at 10:01 pm

proud pausd mom is a registered user.

Appreciate McGee's fresh approach, particularly "a need for a communications strategy that gets ahead of "potentially distracting and disruptive issues".
Collaborative and proactive communication with the community and parents can help reduce many of the concerns list in the article above.
There are excellent candidates who are running for our school board that can make this happen. We need collaborative candidates that have proven that they care about "EVERY" type of student in our district.

[Portion removed.]

Please do you research before you vote for school board, it is a decision that will affect many.

Like this comment
Posted by proud PAUSD dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 25, 2014 at 10:28 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Parent of 3
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 25, 2014 at 11:16 pm

@Paly Parent: Emails are checked more frequently than texts. Email is the primary source of information for most people.

So glad to hear that Max is going to prioritize course consistency and stress. Right now, the Instructional Supervisors are not keeping the classes consistent. Along all classes at Paly, the difficulty of the workload each year all depends on the teachers assigned. If a student gets a bunch of super challenging teachers, the year is simply dreadful for the student and family.

PAUSD should allow anonymous evaluations from students. Many parents do not complain due to perceived backlash so the bad teachers continue their reign of torture from year to year. One year, I complained to the teacher about the rigor of his regular lane core class and my child earned a "C" in the class (it was a class graded partially subjectively) because he wouldn't admit that his class was difficult (parents were all up in arms, complaining to each other and he is infamous).

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 26, 2014 at 7:36 am

Parent of 3

Not sure where you get your assertion that people get information from email primarily and not texts. Not in my experience.

I check my email once or perhaps twice a day. It is proactive, in other words I decide to look and see. My phone alerts me when I receive a text and I read it straight away. To get my immediate attention, I would prefer to receive a text over an email. An email, imo, is for non urgent information whereas a text is expected to be read immediately.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 26, 2014 at 8:57 am

Let me clarify my reasoning.

I get so many emails from PAUSD and school that I would not check them immediately as they are routine and non urgent.

In an emergency situation, one that I was not aware of, I would not check any emails from PAUSD or school for several hours. In an emergency situation, a text would be read immediately on receipt. Of course, if I started getting routine non emergency texts, I would probably start ignoring them for several hours also. Please don't start sending routine information by text.

Parents and students need a better way of being contacted in an emergency situation than we have at present. Texting makes much more sense than emails if we have to act immediately.

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

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