At its last meeting of the year on Tuesday night, the Palo Alto school board unanimously approved several large one-time expenditures to support a range of efforts, from a solar-panel feasibility study to a pilot mathematics program for the elementary schools.
Staff brought to the board seven funding proposals, totaling $773,000, with two identified as "critical need" requests. The "critical" needs are: two full-time athletic trainers, one for each high school, to supplement seasonal part-time trainers who staff said can't fully meet the needs of students; and seven parent liaisons working at each elementary school and on a pilot basis at Gunn High School to serve as connections between families of minority students and their schools.
The funding request for the athletic trainers was double that of the parent liaisons $160,000 compared to $80,000. These dollars will come from the district's unallocated property tax revenue.
The other one-time requests for the 2015-16 year approved by the board are:
● $78,000 to complete "phase two" of a review of the district's special-education department and services, which is currently underway; this is in addition to $32,900 allocated for "phase one" of the review, according to staff.
● $75,000 to explore the possibility of installing solar systems on district campuses; costs include hiring a consultant to conduct a feasibility study, creating a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a procurement specialist and making a recommendation for the "best course of action," a staff report reads.
● $100,000 for multiple "curriculum committees" that will "develop and revise living skills and computer science curricula and evaluate various counseling models at our high schools," the staff report reads; the bulk of this funding would go toward hiring professional facilitators for the committees, Superintendent Max McGee said.
● $150,000 for a pilot elementary math program aligned with the Common Core State Standards; a "teacher leadership group" working this year will recommend two to three curricula to pilot in the 2016-17 school year, according to Elementary Chief Academic Officer Barbara Harris. The $150,000 provides the resources to both elementary and secondary schools to purchase math materials during this school year, she said.
● $130,000 for developing and expanding elementary classrooms' leveled libraries, or classrooms that have books with graduating levels of difficulty to meet the reading needs of all students; according to staff, students in the lower grades need at least six leveled texts each week "in order to develop all of the key literacy skills that promote strong reading."
Teri Baldwin, Palo Alto Educator's Association president and a longtime elementary-school teacher, said the funding request for the leveled libraries is nowhere near the real amount teachers need. She said the $130,000 was calculated by estimating $10,000 would be needed per each elementary site, but the true cost is closer to $6,000 per classroom. To accommodate just Palo Alto's pre-kindergarten through second-grade classrooms, she said, would cost about $732,000.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell, citing the fact that "one of the most impactful things we can do is get kids reading before third grade," said she has a "strong desire" to allocate more funding for leveled libraries at the board's next budget study session in February.
To one board member, however, something significant was missing from the list of seven budget requests: support for mental-health services at the district's secondary sites, particularly the high schools.
Trustee Ken Dauber pointed to $250,000 the board approved in March to fund the hiring of two new mental-health therapists, one for each high school, at a time when the superintendent and others "described the mental health of our students as constituting a public health crisis," Dauber said.
Those two hires became mental-health "coordinators" who do more overseeing and organizing than providing of direct services, Dauber noted. He said he continues to hear from high school students that nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), which provides on-campus counseling services at Paly and Gunn, cannot meet high student demand.
Philippe Rey, executive director of ACS, told the board during an October discussion on counseling that his organization has seen a steady increase in demand over the last few years and is "trying to find ways to either reduce or completely eliminate a waitlist at the sites that we serve so when a student is in need of seeing us, then they can actually access the services."
"This seems to me clearly to be an area where we should be investing more resources than we are," Dauber said, proposing that the board authorize staff to spend up to $200,000, at their discretion, to provide more "frontline" mental-health services at the secondary schools this year. He suggested the funding could go to support the district's partners in providing such services, primarily ACS and Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI).
Though his proposal was ultimately postponed for further discussion at the board's first meeting in January, McGee, for his part, was supportive. He said staff had also planned to bring to the board's February budget session further mental health-related proposals. The district is also looking at convening a joint Paly-Gunn counseling committee to investigate and then recommend an evidence-based counseling model for both schools.
Board members Camille Townsend and Heidi Emberling both asked for more data and feedback around the investments the district has already made toward mental health, from hiring new counselors over the last several years to, for example, a new mindfulness program recently implemented at Gunn.
Townsend stressed that students and parents "repeatedly" say that when there is a problem or they need someone to talk to, they go to a teacher first, rather than a counselor.
"I want ... a better conversation. Maybe we should be adding teachers and classes so we can bring class sizes down," she said, so that students can better connect with their teachers. "Have we taken any steps toward class-size reduction for any of the classes?" she asked.
Staff has prepared several budget scenarios for the board to consider in February, McGee responded, for what it would cost to bring class sizes down by one or more students.
In other business Tuesday, the board elected a new president and vice president. Trustee Emberling, who was elected to the board in 2012, will serve as the new president, replacing Baten Caswell in the position. Terry Godfrey, who won a seat in the 2014 election, has assumed Emberling's previously held position of vice president.