A special Board of Education budget study session on Tuesday night offered a wide-ranging but still-preliminary look at where the Palo Alto school district would like to invest its dollars in the coming years, from the potential implementation of full-day kindergarten to the opening of a new secondary school.
The board convened Tuesday to discuss a long laundry list of budget proposals, mostly from district staff and the K-12 leadership team, which includes principals. The list includes seven new program proposals as well as funding requests to support still-to-be-implemented recommendations from the superintendent's Minority Achievement and Talent Development (MATD) advisory committee, forthcoming recommendations from an enrollment management committee, costs to potentially open new schools and to reduce class sizes.
The first item presented on Tuesday was to bring full-day kindergarten to Palo Alto, particularly to support historically underrepresented students. Full-day kindergarten was a recommendation from the MATD committee, which repeatedly stressed early education, intervention and support as critical means to help close the achievement gap in the school district.
Superintendent Max McGee said Tuesday that this proposal is unanimously supported by all principals in the district, from pre-kindergarten through high school. He added that when the minority-achievement committee tracked high school students who didn't meet the A-G graduation requirements back through their entire academic career in the district, many had already been falling behind by second and third grades.
"If you're behind in second and third grade, the chances of catching up are minimal at best," McGee said.
Research on students enrolled in full-day kindergarten demonstrates benefits such as greater progress in reading and math than those in half-day classes, increased social-emotional benefits and long-term educational benefits, particularly for minority and low-income students.
Board Vice President Heidi Emberling added that full-day kindergarten can ease transportation challenges for working parents, provides lower-cost childcare and allows families access to high-quality early education programs.
Palo Alto has already piloted full-day kindergarten programs at two sites, Palo Verde and Barron Park elementary schools. At Barron Park, students begin the year with a half-day program designed to introduce them to school life. In mid-October, they shift to staying until 2:30 p.m., except on minimum days, to allow for "structured social activities" and enrichment like music, physical education, art, dance, and science with the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo, according to the school's website.
Other sites offer extended days two days a week. Staff recommended Tuesday that the district look to extend full-day kindergarten to up to six sites in the 2016-17 year with an estimated cost of $300,000.
Emberling said she's in support of full-day kindergarten, but urged a thoughtful approach. She compared it to preparing Gunn High School teachers for a shift to a new bell schedule at the start of this school year with extra professional development and education around the instructional shifts that were required by a new schedule.
"Like with block scheduling, we can't just implement a schedule change without providing professional development and support to our teachers as we navigate this," she said "The whole point of the benefits (of full-day kindergarten) of reducing disparities in academic readiness and improving connection to school and improving social-emotional connection and development with peers you need to make sure that there's support that exists in the classroom, both for the teachers and for the students."
Jill Dinneen, a longtime kindergarten teacher from Juana Briones Elementary School, told the board that as a member of a committee that recommended the extended-day program, the value of that model was to break down classes into smaller groups which then alternate staying for the extra hours.
"Small groups are the way to get to students who need it the most," Dinneen said.
She also said she knew of two kindergarten teachers who left the district after full-day kindergarten was implemented at their site "because that program was too daunting to handle once they were on their own." Extra aides provided as support were pulled out of their classrooms after the first year, she said.
Emberling added that any conversation around full-day kindergarten must involve teachers. Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educator's Association and a kindergarten teacher, asked the board why teachers were not asked for any input on the list of budget proposals they discussed Tuesday.
"I would think you would want all of the stakeholders' information before you push recommendations," she said. "Teachers are the ones in the classrooms. They really know what programs are needed."
Board member Ken Dauber requested that when staff returns to the board with more final budget proposals, they provide information about the trade-offs of implementing full-day kindergarten versus other alternatives, such as increasing the district's preschool services.
President Melissa Baten Caswell also requested data from the existing full-day kindergarten programs at Palo Verde and Barron Park.
The board's conversation also frequently returned to the topic of opening a new secondary school, which was recently recommended, albeit preliminarily, by a subcommittee of the district's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC). The secondary subcommittee has proposed that the district open an innovative middle and high school at Cubberley Community Center on Middlefield Road, as well as work to make needed changes at the existing secondary sites.
While there is clear excitement and support for a new secondary school on both the board and in the community more than 20 parents and community members spoke in rousing support for the proposal at an Oct. 27 board meeting Tuesday's budget discussion was a reminder of just how much it will cost the district.
Staff estimated it would cost somewhere between $65 million to $70 million to build a middle/high school at Cubberley. Operating costs for a middle school, based on existing schools from the 2015-16 year, is about $2.5 million, and for a high school, $3.6 million. The district will also lose $5.5 million in lease revenue from the Cubberley site if it chooses to build there, though it could potentially retain some revenue by allowing some space to be used at night by the city or community groups, for example.
Baten Caswell said the district will likely have to consider outside funding sources if it decides to open a new 6-12 school, even with higher-than-projected property tax revenue this year and a fresh influx of cash from a recent school parcel-tax measure. The district has a budget surplus of $7.6 million property-tax revenue and $2.3 million from Measure A, which voters overwhelmingly approved in May.
Trustee Camille Townsend said that she hopes the board and staff will not limit itself based on the budget, particularly when it comes to opening a new school.
"I've certainly heard enough from enough people recently that the board just doesn't dream big enough," she said. "I want to turn this around and say, 'I don't want to be limited in this conversation today by what's here.'"
Other board members stressed that they won't be able to fund everything proposed Tuesday night, but instead must make the best use of the dollars available to have a high and broad effect on students throughout the district.
"I love dreaming as much as anybody does, but I think that the budget exercise that we're engaged in is trying to figure out what is the highest, best use of the dollars that the community has given us," Dauber said.
Both Dauber and board member Terry Godfrey pointed to the absence of any immediate social-emotional proposals in the budget, particularly for the secondary level. A top program proposal is the creation of a joint Paly-Gunn committee that will spend about a year developing new social-emotional curriculum and a counseling model to potentially be implemented in the fall of 2017.
The district is estimating it would cost up to $50,000 to fund a professional facilitator to lead the proposed committee and up to $100,000 for the professional development necessary to design and implement new social-emotional curriculum.
Staff also estimated that implementing a weekly teacher-advisory counseling model at both Paly and Gunn would cost about $632,000.
Other proposals discussed Tuesday included more staffing to expand the district's new Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program, which is currently serving 80 high school students in its pilot year; class-size reductions, particularly at the high schools; world-language instruction at elementary schools; new computer science curriculum to start at the middle-school level; and anticipated costs from a special-education program review currently underway in the district.
McGee said staff will return to the board in February with a prioritized, shorter list of budget proposals. Godfrey encouraged him to identify any efforts that the district wants to pursue this year that are one-time costs (rather than requiring ongoing funding) and to implement them sooner.