News

Palo Alto school board to discuss budget, vote on new special-education law firm

Discussion will be the last before officials vote to adopt budget

The Palo Alto school board will discuss Tuesday night further proposed budget allocations, including to mitigate class sizes at the high schools, as well as take action on its legal contracts for the 2016-17 year.

Tuesday's meeting will be the last discussion of the 2016-17 budget before the board votes to adopt it at its final meeting of the year on June 21. The budget includes major new raises for teachers and administrators, additional staffing to accommodate enrollment growth and $2.3 million in program additions approved by the board last month, among other items. (The board approved a total $3.2 million of additions, but $832,000 of that will be part of the 2017-18 budget.)

Staff has also recommended that the district use $341,000 in additional property-tax revenue to further reduce class sizes at the middle and high schools, provide breakfast to low-income elementary school students at an additional school, reclassify several district-level positions and support a new "Learning Design Team" that will be tasked with looking at ways to innovate at the secondary schools, according to a staff report prepared by Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak.

Staff has proposed the following allocations for the additional property-tax funds:

• $250,000 to reserve two teachers to help mitigate large classes at the middle and high schools, which would allow schools to request additional sections to keep class sizes under 35 for the high schools and under 30 for the middle schools, as well as accommodate any "unexpected increase in registrations" during the summer, according to the staff report. Any unused funds will be released back to the 2016-17 fund balance in August.

• $20,000 to provide breakfast at one more elementary school (Walter Hays) beyond the five Title I schools the board approved

• $50,000 for reclassification of four management positions, including director of elementary education; chief academic officer for the secondary level; professional development coordinator; and director of research, evaluation and assessment

• $21,000 for Learning Design Team "planning activities"

The revenue assumptions in the proposed budget are based on an increase of 8.67 percent in property taxes, according to Mak. Property-tax revenue makes up more than 71 percent of the district's General Fund budget.

The "bulk" of the district's expenditures — 85 percent — is allocated to employee salaries and benefits, Mak wrote. The remaining 15 percent is used for contracted services, supplies and materials, capital outlay and other expenses.

The board will also consider a salary increase for substitute teachers: a new daily rate of $165, a long-term day rate of $220 and a partial-day rate of $90, to start in the 2016-17 school year. This is a $13-per-day increase for the daily rate, $18-per-day increase for the long-term rate and $7-per-half-day increase for the partial-day rate.

Staff estimates the proposed increases will cost the district about $125,000, given the number of absences in the last school year. The substitute teacher rates were last adjusted for the 2014-15 school year and the board requested that the district review the rates every two years, according to staff.

In other business Tuesday, the board will vote on its legal-services contract for the next school year. Notably, the board could give the green light to hire a new special-education law firm to replace Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost, whose handling of special-education issues for the school district has been criticized for creating an adversarial relationship with families and contributing to high legal costs.

Superintendent Max McGee recommended in April that Pleasanton-based firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo replace Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost, which has represented the district for close to 10 years.

Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo was selected from five firms (including Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost) who responded to a Request for Proposal (RFP) for special-education services that the district issued in February.

Staff is asking the board to enter into a contract with the new firm for $200,000.

Staff is also recommending to renew contracts with Lozano Smith, which has worked for the district on issues relating to personnel, the teacher's union and general governance, among others, for $200,000; with Dannis Woliver Kelley, which provides facilities and construction related services, for $100,000; and with Dora Dome, which supports the district on student-services matters, for $15,000.

District staff will be "as conservative as is prudently possible in its use of attorney funds," Mak notes in the staff report.

The board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.

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Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 7, 2016 at 3:13 pm

More in-depth coverage by Palo Alto Weekly of legal issue at:
Web Link

New Board Member school liaison assignments are on this Agenda. No Board members are assigned to Non-public schools or private special needs schools, the schools where students involved in legal issues are most likely to be. With no Board liaison, families at these schools cannot communicate with Board members. The Board does not know what is going on, even for positive successes or for Board-City liaison questions like safety and train transportation.


1 person likes this
Posted by Wow
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 7, 2016 at 3:21 pm

"With no Board liaison, families at these schools cannot communicate with Board members."

Not sure what this means. Anyone can contact any board member - there's no restriction. The board members don't always respond timely, whether they are in a liaison role or not.

I do tend to agree with the overall point that Board members are not well tuned-in to special ed student needs, especially those students who are significant disabled and at placements outside PAUSD. Designating a Board member for that role might be a smart move.


1 person likes this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jun 7, 2016 at 3:57 pm

@Wow - Anyone can talk to a Board member, but all the other schools and even committees have specific Board members assigned as liaisons their schools. That Board member visits the schools and knows what is going on, and is approachable. Students placed by the District in Non-Public Schools, Therapeutic Schools, and private special needs schools do not.

Per the Agenda to the Board meeting posted by Palo Alto Weekly, the Board is also reviewing the assignments of Board liaisons tonight.

Last year the Board approved retaining Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost and rejected a request to have a liaison to their own special needs advisory committee. Instead, Board member Ms. Emberling attacked the advisory committee, a volunteer group whose parents put in thousands of hours and showed up and spoke at many meetings. This occurred even though some Board Members, Ms. Godfrey if memory serves, volunteered to be a liaison even if it was extra work. Parent members of the advisory committee had publicly expressed their concerns with the law firm.

At the same meeting, the Board voted to approve a rushed reorganization and a promotion of a new Assistant Superintendent with power over all counseling, special education, attendance, evaluation of special education student and their records and legal cases against the disabled. The same person had already chosen an organization to evaluate her work, which is happening now. One person was now in complete control of all information with the ability to deny services based on her own evaluations she controls, and the power to sue families.

Families simply could not get a fair chance to get their input or concerns considered, despite District claims of transparency and 100% success rates at full inclusion, which were, at best, silly.

The Board and Superintendent did not listen to parent concerns, many of which had been made repeatedly over a year. Instead, Emberling other long term Board members said the legal firm was doing just what they wanted to be done, under their instruction. Emberling attacked the parent organization as disorganized because she did not know when it held meetings. These meetings were held regularly, published in advance, and available on the web. Emberling simply had not bothered to look, or had a problem with her executive management of her own staff withholding information from her, especially if it was negative about Special Education. At points, it became painfully obvious that Board members relied on one source, such as the promoted Assistant Superintendent or law firm. They parroted their language and arguments exactly, demonstrating a lack of effort to consult a variety of sources, especially parents. (The exception to this was Mr. Dauber, who met with parents, collected written reports, and read all District legal related e-mails prior to expressing his concerns with the firm.)

Yes, anyone can talk to a Board Member, but there is no one on the Board assigned to be on special need kid's side, only kids at mainstream public schools. The kids removed from mainstream schools do not fit the 100% success promoted by the District. They are second class citizens without representation.


5 people like this
Posted by Who is Minding the Store?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2016 at 11:12 am

Today's article says the district is increasing substitute pay by about $13/day for full day (less for half day). Web Link

"Staff estimates the proposed increases will cost the district about $125,000, given the number of absences in the last school year"

That amounts to (making a rough calculation of just full days since no data was provided in the article) 9,615 days absent last year.

PAUSD employs 833 teachers
Web Link

9615/833= ~11.5 days per teacher

This is 40-50% more absences per teacher than in San Francisco, a larger and more diverse and challenging district, and almost as much as Oakland, a larger, more diverse district serving a much more economically diverse demographic.

Why should we care?
Web Link
According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, "the more teachers are absent, the more their students’ achievement suffers. When teachers are absent 10 days, the decrease in student achievement is equivalent to the difference between having a brand new teacher and one with two or three years more experience."

Our average teacher absence is high enough to be considered "frequently absent" relative to other districts.

The report points out that teacher absences is an issue public districts should care about because of how it affects student performance. I think we get great substitutes in this district, but we shouldn't need them as often as we do.

Given that there are so many things the district can do to improve teacher health and attendance, I do not see why the administrators deserve to keep giving themselves raises and exorbitant salaries for such lousy performance. When is our 4th estate going to start calling the district administration on its performance? I've never so much as seen a comprehensive report on how much district bureaucracy is really costing us.




2 people like this
Posted by Wow
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 8, 2016 at 3:57 pm

@agenda, as I said I agree with your general point that the board does not deal well with special ed. Caswell gave a good example last night, asking Wade what was being done to reign special ed outside placement costs. No discussion of whether the expenses was necessary or even sufficient, just how are you going to bring it down. Sad, really, for a board memento be so publicly callous.

The liaison role is not as helpful as you think. In most cases, the Board member has a low level of engagement.


2 people like this
Posted by Who is Minding the Store?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2016 at 4:54 pm

@Wow,
At any time, did Caswell or anyone else bring up the cost of bureaucracy in this district and how to bring that down?


5 people like this
Posted by Board watcher
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 8, 2016 at 5:03 pm

Yes, Dauber told McGee to return with plans to cut staff at the district office. McGee agreed. First time I have seen that except when there is a fiscal crisis.


5 people like this
Posted by Who is Minding the Store?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2016 at 6:06 pm

@Board Watcher,
Seriously? Wow. That's great. Except, I can't remember a single fiscal crisis that resulted in cutting administrative staff especially not at 25 Churchill - was there any?


1 person likes this
Posted by Wow
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 8, 2016 at 7:53 pm

Wow is a registered user.

The discussion was a little broader, where Caswell and others suggested McGee do something to show the overhead levels at the district vs. other districts. McGee said he would be "delighted to," implying he thought it would show them lean and mean compared to others. We'll see. There was also discussion of $50K of raises ("reclassifications") for senior staff, based on review of their responsibilities. Even the board looked queasy at this, as well they should! We underfunded a free breakfast program for poor students, but we are giving out free raises to senior staff? Wow.


Like this comment
Posted by Residential Placement Schools
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 11, 2016 at 3:57 pm

@Wow - I think Ms. Baten Caswell was asking if the 5% increase in Non Public School (NPS) costs was increasing the number of students PAUSD sends to Residential Therapeutic Schools. These are therapeutic placements, often for emotionally disturbed students that the District may not be able to educate or keep safe in large mainstream public schools.

I think the District Administrators clarified they are not trying to place more students in residential therapeutic schools. Nobody wants that. It is a last resort. The amount is for tuition increases at these schools. This year Affordable Care Act requirements increased teacher insurance costs dramatically. Some of these schools operate on a shoe string budget. The number of administrators and teacher salaries at these schools can be fare far below PAUSD. These schools may survive with fundraising help. For years many kept tuition increases extremely low, $100-$300. At some point, they need to catch up.

I think Ms. Mac said the numbers are provided by the County. They look like mid points. Tuition increases can range 1-7%. Also, when students come out of Residential Placements, a big public high school may be the worse place for them. They may transition back to small NPS or small Special Needs schools, which are cheaper than a residential placement school, and may still be cheaper than a large public school if the child will needs a lot of support like a full time aide and therapist to stay there.

I agree, the question was asked in a callous way, but I don't think the District sends kids to extreme placements unless they can't serve the child in the District. It may be necessary for children who regress and lose developmental skills. Some students may have never developed certain cognitive skills such as safety awareness and become a danger to themselves and others, even if they are smart. It is sad, but there will always be some children who need extra help. It is nobody's fault.


3 people like this
Posted by Who is Minding the Store?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 12, 2016 at 6:18 pm

I'd love to know how many families felt fighting for something else was their only recourse because of how unsafe they felt because of PAUSD special ed administrative, um, practices. Or how many just gave up and left because it wasn't worth fighting (or fighting anymore). That has saved the district money. If you don't count the excessive legal and administrative costs of maintaining an adversarial stance against families.

As for comparing our administration against "others" - is that what we should be spending time and money doing? Or should we be looking at what we could be? For example, teacher absences. I'm sure it would be possible to cherry pick to find districts that could make a nice misleading Power Point presentation justifying everything as hunky dory, as Brenda Carrillo especially is wont to do. But the above review of many districts makes clear that our teachers absenteeism falls within the "frequently absent" category. There will be no examination of that, only justifications, excuses, or downright dishonesty. And it's too bad, because absenteeism is often the tip of the iceberg - indicating other problems that need solving.

Melissa Caswell has been one of the most monumentally disappointing board members, I regret having voted for her almost every day. Not as much as I regret voting for Emberling, but that's not saying much. Insincere reviews of practices, policies, and expenditures are worse even than none at all.


5 people like this
Posted by Who is Minding the Store?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 12, 2016 at 6:35 pm

I'd love to know how many families felt fighting for something else was their only recourse because of how unsafe they felt because of PAUSD special ed administrative, um, practices. Or how many just gave up and left because it wasn't worth fighting (or fighting anymore). That has saved the district money. If you don't count the excessive legal and administrative costs of maintaining an adversarial stance against families.

As for comparing our administration against "others" - is that what we should be spending time and money doing? Or should we be looking at what we could be? For example, teacher absences. I'm sure it would be possible to cherry pick to find districts that could make a nice misleading Power Point presentation justifying everything as hunky dory, as Brenda Carrillo especially is wont to do. But the above review of many districts makes clear that our teachers absenteeism falls within the "frequently absent" category. There will be no examination of that, only justifications, excuses, or downright dishonesty. And it's too bad, because absenteeism is often the tip of the iceberg - indicating other problems that need solving.

Melissa Caswell has been one of the most monumentally disappointing board members, I regret having voted for her almost every day. Not as much as I regret voting for Emberling, but that's not saying much. Insincere reviews of practices, policies, and expenditures are worse even than none at all.


6 people like this
Posted by Who is Minding the Store?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 12, 2016 at 6:37 pm

@Wow,
"The discussion was a little broader, where Caswell and others suggested McGee do something to show the overhead levels at the district vs. other districts. McGee said he would be "delighted to," implying he thought it would show them lean and mean compared to others. We'll see. "

Let's recall what just happened with the class size issue. If you go by what the district says, our class sizes are fine. It took parents willing to do the hard work of finding out what is actually going on (probably with no help from the administration or they wouldn't have had to do so much gumshoeing) who found that the district's numbers were ... wrong and self-serving for administrators.

Waiting for McGee to report what he's going to report is just asking for the excuses and spin in advance of the revelation of wrongdoing. When has the administration for this district ever been truthful with the public? "You must vote for (the most recent) Measure A because otherwise we'll have to lay off 80 teachers!" If anyone who heard that discussion wants an honest answer to the question of how burdensome is our district administration, or how much it takes away from educating our kids, they should start the gumshoeing now. Ahem -- I would really love to see the Weekly do that hard work of answering that question, too.

What outside family-centered mechanisms assess our district administration's performance? What did they do to deserve the hefty raises they keep giving themselves? What does our administration cost us in total? Can we achieve the same or even better results by reducing the number of permanent senior staff? It's very typical in other governmental organizations to have only a small core of civil service, hiring from outside contractors for various projects. The contractors must continually justify their contracts through their performance and can be let go at any time. It matters almost not at all whether McGee and company can come up with another slick justification of their exorbitant pay and substandard performance. What matters is the facts and what the community they serve thinks. Just as with the class size issue, parents who care need to be the ones looking out for our kids - because it won't come from the overpaid administration.


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