In advance of the quickly approaching expiration date of the school district's current parcel tax, the Palo Alto Board of Education will tonight discuss placing a renewed tax on the May 5 ballot.
Voters approved Measure A, the current six-year tax, in July 2010. It is set to expire at the end of the 2015-16 fiscal year, and staff are recommending that the school board approve ballot language for a renewed tax as well as hold a public hearing on the topic at the next board meeting.
The parcel tax, which started at $589 per parcel in 2010 and has risen to $638 per parcel this year with a 2 percent annual increase, allows for smaller class sizes and a wider range of high school course offerings as well as pays for professional development, training, instructional materials and counseling services. The tax also "reduce(s) the impact of deep budget cuts by providing a stable local funding source that cannot be taken away by the state or other school districts," the staff report reads.
The parcel tax also provides key financial support in a district where per-student operating funding has risen by only 8 percent, compared to the 13 percent increase estimated by the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
Since the financial downturn in 2008, Palo Alto Unified's enrollment has also increased by approximately 1,100 students and is projected to grow by more than 700 students over the next five years, according to staff.
"Although property taxes have risen in recent years, we have faced more than a $10 million reduction in our general operating funds as the result of reductions in funding from the state, a reduction in our lease revenues, and a substantial increase in annual pension costs mandated by state law," the staff report reads. "Expiration of the parcel tax would result in deep cuts to educational programs that are important to students and valued by the community."
In early December, the district polled 402 community members to gauge the interest and willingness of Palo Altans to vote to renew the parcel tax and to possibly increase the tax amount in order to support existing and new programs.
Eighty-eight percent of respondents expressed support for a renewed parcel tax measure. Ten percent said they would vote no and 3 percent were undecided.
The top three issues that the parcel tax currently supports that community members said are most important are attracting and retaining qualified teachers; supporting advanced programs in science, math and technology; and providing enhanced electives for high school students, including art, music and social sciences. In descending order, the other important "problems" are keeping elementary school libraries open an fully staffed; maintaining teaching specialists in the areas of reading, math and science; maintaining teacher training and support programs; providing additional school counselors and psychologists for students who need help; and maintaining smaller class sizes.
The most important new use for additional parcel tax money, according to those surveyed, was adding support staff to help at-risk students who are struggling with the basics (78 percent said it is very/somewhat important and 31 percent said it is very important).
Fifty-seven percent of respondents said there is a great/some need for more money in the district, compared to 14 percent who saw an explicit great need. More than half of respondents (56 percent) agreed that the district "gives taxpayers good value for their money."
A resolution that the board will discuss Tuesday night indicates that if approved by two-thirds of voters, the new parcel tax would not exceed $758 per year for six years beginning on July 1 with annual 2 percent increases.
In other business Tuesday, Superintendent Max McGee will present a charge for a new enrollment advisory committee, the formation of which he has suggested multiple times since the fall in light of growing enrollment, particularly in Palo Alto's middle schools, and increasing calls for the opening of a thirteenth elementary school.
The committee's purpose, as described by McGee in a report, is "to prepare a set of strategic, evidence based, actionable recommendations that will enable the district to design, develop, and implement short- and long-term plans for accommodating projected PAUSD enrollment, consistent with PAUSD educational standards, financial capacity, and the Community Values and Planning Standards" an enrollment and facilities master planning board policy.
The district has in the past three years formed two other committees to look at the feasibility of opening a thirteenth elementary school, with the board continually delaying that decision.
McGee wrote that this committee's charge will be broader, and solutions might involve a thirteenth elementary school, a fourth middle school or a new K-8 school. The committee is slated to make recommendations to the board next fall.
The district will soon take applications for the committee, which will consist of approximately 12 community members, staff, parents, city representatives and local businesses.
The board will also vote on a revised design for Gunn High School's Central Building Project, which includes a comprehensive wellness center as well as upgrades to Spangenberg Theatre.
The board will also discuss spending $157,507 to purchase 465 Dell Chromebooks for Palo Alto High School.
The Tuesday, Jan. 13, meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. at district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full board agenda here.