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.
"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.