News

School board: budget discussions continue; new law firm approved

Palo Alto school officals to adopt final budget at last meeting on Monday, June 13

Palo Alto's Board of Education members continued to discuss enrollment, class size and other elements impacting the 2016-17 budget on Tuesday night in advance of their likely adoption of the district's financial commitments at the next and final meeting of the school year.

While Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak noted in a presentation that one of the top "budget pressures" facing the school district is growing enrollment, and staff recommended using the majority of an additional $341,000 in property-tax revenue to mitigate large secondary-school class sizes, at least one board member pointed to overall shrinking enrollment and another argued that more investment is necessary to accommodate large classes.

The district's overall number of students has dipped in recent years, but is projected to rise again through the 2017-18 school year, according to the district demographer's projections. The increase is expected to occur mostly at the high schools, where a large "bubble" class currently at the middle schools will soon arrive.

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said she wanted to clarify the recent decline in overall growth to address a "misconception in the public."

"We do have to plan for the middle school and high school bubbles," she said. "I just want to make sure we're all on the same page."

Under the proposed budget, the district has now allocated 21 full-time teachers to accommodate enrollment growth. The district has projected that an additional 25 high school teachers will be needed in future budgets to mitigate growth at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools over the next five years.

Last month, the board also approved $1.8 million in the budget to hire 12 new teachers over two years — six for the middle schools and six for the high schools — to help mitigate large class sizes.

Pointing to many core English, math and science classes at both the middle and high schools that are well over the district's stated class-size targets, Trustee Ken Dauber questioned, as he has before, whether the proposed budget has done enough to address what he called a "serious" and "significant" problem.

By his count, 425 academic classes at both Paly and Gunn have more than 30 or more students, above the stated target average of 28.5. Fifty percent of math and science courses are also above the target averages, Dauber said.

Ninth-grade math and English classes are supposed to have even fewer students — 24 — and 10th-grade English, 26, per the staffing ratios adopted in the most recent teachers' contract. Middle school classes are supposed to be staffed to provide an average of 24 students.

"This budget that we're adopting and our projections don't address that," Dauber said. "I think that's a problem for us and a problem for students."

Superintendent Max McGee responded that the process for structuring master schedules and reducing class sizes is nuanced. Taking one of Dauber's examples — comedy literature, which has an average of 32 students — he said that adding a new teacher would mean to have two sections of 16, or capping it at 30 would mean two students bumping up class size somewhere else.

"There are a lot of nuances that come into this with these more specialized classes," McGee said. "That being said, I'd still like to have classes (closer) to 30 than 35."

Site principals have also been working to bring class sizes down, particularly at the middle schools. Tom Jacoubowsky, interim principal of Jordan Middle School, said in a message sent to families this week that next year, average class sizes "will be some of the best we have had in years."

Eighth-graders should see "significant improvements," Jacoubowsky wrote, especially for students who had this year taken math 7A, which had high averages of 32 students. This fall, algebra 8, the math class that math 7A feeds into, will average between 26 to 27 students, a five-student drop across the board, Jacoubowsky said.

Extra staffing will also provide "class size relief" for the bubble classes moving through Jordan, he wrote.

While the majority of the board was comfortable with Mak's property-tax projections for the next several years, Dauber was not. Mak has projected a property-tax growth of 8.67 percent in the next school year, 7.83 percent for the 2017-18 year and 5 percent for 2018-19 to 2021-22. Property-tax dollars are the district's largest revenue source, and they will be necessary in coming years to fund recently approved teacher salary increases, according to Mak.

"If we don't see that (growth), then we're going to have hard choices to make," Dauber said. "Those students are going to show up in our schools whether or not we have the revenue in order to hire those teachers."

Board Vice President Terry Godfrey noted that the district will have an 18-month lead time on any drop in property-tax revenue — ample time to plan ahead, she said.

The board will discuss class sizes at an all-day retreat on Monday, June 13. Godfrey said she would like to also talk about priorities in case those hard choices have to be made. Is it giving students their first choice of classes, she asked, or metrics like average class sizes across subjects or averages across courses?

Dauber said the district and board should be looking at class sizes at the course level rather than averages across the schools. That's where students' experiences are, he said.

New law firm approved

With little discussion, the board unanimously approved a $200,000 contract with a new special-education law firm, replacing a sometimes controversial firm that had represented the district for close to 10 years.

Pleasanton-based Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo is replacing 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.

Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost also represented the district in several investigations the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened in Palo Alto in response to allegations of discrimination and bullying.

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

McGee and a committee of district administrators -- Holly Wade, chief student services offer and former director of special education; Chiara Perry, current director of special education; Brenda Carrillo, student-services director; Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey and Communications Coordinator Jorge Quintana -- reviewed the responses, interviewed the firms and settled on Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo as the best choice, McGee previously told the Weekly.

While Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost will finalize any still-open cases, new cases will be opened with the Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo team, according to McGee.

The new firm will also represent the district in ongoing Office for Civil Rights investigations. Until the firm starts, McGee and Wade are "handling discussions" with the federal agency, McGee has said.

Staff was eager for the board's approval in order to fully transition to the new firm before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1, McGee said Tuesday.

The board also renewed contracts with its other three main law firms: 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.

In other business Tuesday, the board reviewed and heard updates for the district's three-year Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP), which outlines how the district will use state funding to meet the needs of all students, particularly targeted groups like English language-learners, foster youth and low-income students.

Comments

20 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 8, 2016 at 10:50 am

Any discussion of how to get rid of poor performing teachers or just how to throw more money around?


18 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 8, 2016 at 10:59 am

We have huge schools. Some of the high school classes are much too big.

Last week we had graduations at high schools and promotions at elementary and middle schools. The size of the student body can be really felt when it comes to these events.

To begin with, parking around all the schools could not cope with the numbers of guests that were invited.

The only place to sit and watch these events were in very hot sun. Some guests brought umbrellas and parasols, or even large sun hats but that angered those sitting behind as nothing could be seen.

We had students sitting in the sun in nylon. How hot that must have been.

We had long lists of names being read that went on for an intolerable long time. Those at the beginning got bored and made it difficult for those at the end. Those at the end wondered just how long it would go on.

Now I am sure we are not unique in most of these problems, but they are worth addressing as signs of schools that are too big for their campuses.


23 people like this
Posted by Who is Minding the Store?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 8, 2016 at 1:06 pm

What happened to the raise for substitute teachers? We gave teachers and district bureaucrats a hefty raise, but not substitute teachers who are not being paid well. I just posted this on the thread that this story supplanted (see the first link below), but it belongs here, too:

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.





5 people like this
Posted by Kate
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 8, 2016 at 6:48 pm

What about history/social science? Doesn't that count? (Re: "Pointing to many core English, math and science classes at both the middle and high schools that are well over the district's stated class-size targets, Trustee Ken Dauber questioned, as he has before, whether the proposed budget has done enough to address what he called a "serious" and "significant" problem.")


17 people like this
Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 8, 2016 at 7:14 pm

@Kate

Yes, I specifically mentioned that based on district data every US Government class at Paly is over the district's standard of 28.5 students per course, on average (and even that standard is high, in my view). More broadly, 45% of social studies courses at Paly and Gunn are larger than the district standard, with several having average class sizes of 30, 31, and 32. Class sizes that large just don't work well for students and teachers.

Most people agree that reducing these large class sizes should be an imperative for the district. But as I pointed out at the board meeting yesterday, we don't currently have a plan to solve this problem. Hiring the necessary teachers is going to take changing priorities so that we devote more dollars to direct teaching of students. I'll continue to advocate for that change as the board discusses the budget over the next several weeks.


10 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 8, 2016 at 8:24 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Wednesday evening, June 8th

Hi, Fellow PAOnliners,

This class-size discussion is important!--and as a former English teacher in Palo Alto maybe I can add a useful perspective.

Reasonably-sized high-school class sizes are matter of adolescent mental health. No teenager who's having a hard time just being a teenager, or is feeling down in the dumps, or who may even be, god forbid, enduring a depression or in despair, is helped by being in classrooms where he or she feels lost in the crowd, unhelped, unseen.

In right-sized classes, students blossom because they feel recognized as people--and it’s the warmth of engagement between the individual student and his or her teacher that is the single most powerful motivation to learn, even if teenagers (for the sake of maintaining their cool and dignity) will never say so!

Kids are both all-over-the-place and spot-on, in fact, when it comes to explaining why they’ve preferred one teacher to another. Ask them about lesson-planning, classroom management, depth of knowledge and they become incoherent.

But ask them to explain why a teacher was unforgettably wonderful and they put the arrow in the bull’s-eye: "Because he was really interested in me!" or "Because she cared about me as a person!"

Last fall semester, by my count, Gunn and Paly had 407 classes with 30 or more teenagers per room. Spring semester, the number of such classes was 425. This isn't as bad as our Santa Clara County jails, but it's heading in that direction!

We should shrink our largest classes to a friendlier (and more education-friendly!) size. We needn't get caught up in distracting side-issues of capping certain classes or meeting averages.

It's not as important to shrink a class of 26 as to shrink a class of 36!--and a single class of 32 isn't the end of the world.

A friendlier-sized class is one in which you get your homework and essays returned sooner (and with richer, more individual feedback), can get a word in edgewise in class discussions, can begin to be acquainted with each of your classmates, and have a shot at the teacher’s one-on-one attention right after class because the melee around him isn’t the size of a riot.

Ditto, your odds for five minutes of your teacher’s time at lunch, when (without the embarrassment of having your peers around) you can ask her to go over the one thing you didn’t quite grasp in class and which, god only knows, your grade might depend on!

The only compelling argument against smaller classes is the financial expense. But...really! In Palo Alto?! One of the richest communities in the United States?! How is it that we would not value our children enough to give them this basic of a good school environment?

We're not Podunk or Sneeze-and-You-Miss-It-Ville! Our resources are world-class. We've got a superintendent with terrific sales skills; and only a couple of months ago, deep-pocketed people in Silicon Valley were lining up to help us build a "super-school"!

Let's urge our school leaders to make smaller high-school classes a top priority. Right-sized classes are already the #1 proposal of the community initiative Save the 2,008--a coalition of some 480 parents, grandparents, teachers, Stanford profs, PAMF physicians, engineers, artists, LMFTs, rabbis and ministers--and you can join us with just the keystrokes of your name, at: savethe2008.com.

All best,

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator, Save the 2,008


26 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 8, 2016 at 8:37 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

When all of the increased revenue goes to increasing teacher's salaries there isn't anything left to reduce class sizes.

The Board needs to start making some strategic decisions on resource allocations.


12 people like this
Posted by Hindsight
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jun 9, 2016 at 6:53 am

Which begs the question why no one on the board, Ken included, made class size reductions part of the district's initial position or even brought it up when negotiating with PAEA.


19 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 9, 2016 at 7:17 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Unfortunately most local agencies begin the union negotiation process simply by asking the union for a proposal - which essentially puts the union in charge.

Years ago the Menlo Park Fire Protection District realized the error in this process and preceeded its negotiations with a public discussion of what were the District's and the taxpayers priorities. Then the Fire District and the Union were able to meet at the table with two proposals. The result was a new four year contract that mets the needs of both parties.


17 people like this
Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 9, 2016 at 7:30 am

@Hindsight

There's a confusion between negotiating with the teachers union about maximum allowable class sizes, and negotiating a contract that leaves enough money left to hire teachers to reduce actual class sizes.

The district's contract with the teachers union (PAEA) includes an article that sets out maximum class sizes for various types of classes. The district doesn't have to negotiate to change that article if it wants to hire more teachers in order to reduce class sizes below the maximum. That's because the article specifies maximum class sizes, not minimum class sizes. It only has to negotiate that article if the district needs to increase class sizes above the maximum sizes in the contract.

My preference in the recent negotiations was to reserve enough money from the $8 million property tax revenue surplus to hire more teachers, to reduce class sizes. That would have meant smaller but still healthy raises (9% over 3 years rather than the 12% actually adopted, plus one-time bonuses and annual "step and column" increases), which would have freed up enough funds for 35 permanent teachers. That would have been enough teachers to solve the current overcrowded classes in the high schools and get us most of the way to meeting the "bubble" cohorts that will be increasing the size of the high schools by over 600 students in the next several years.

In short, negotiating a contract that reduces class size because it reserves enough money to hire teachers has nothing to do with negotiating the article the sets maximum class sizes.


10 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 9, 2016 at 7:38 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

My point is that reducing class size should be an objective of both the School District and the Union in the negotiation process so that both parties are forced to make the sacrifices necessary in the contract to ensure lower class sizes.


10 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 9, 2016 at 8:23 am

Peter, I doubt that the teacher's union is confused about the fact that higher raises equals less money for hiring teachers. Most of the district's budget is teacher salaries.

This was a case of a board that didn't set priorities right. Even though they had a board member that was probably telling them otherwise.


10 people like this
Posted by au contraire
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 9, 2016 at 10:12 am

"In short, negotiating a contract that reduces class size because it reserves enough money to hire teachers has nothing to do with negotiating the article the sets maximum class sizes."

Ken, this has everything to do with it!

I would much rather have a contract with the union that limited the Math class sizes in middle school to the required 24 students than have to write begging letters to the board and superintendent to ask them to get the schools to adhere to the boards own defined limits.

Hoping that we'll have enough money left over and hoping that money left over will be spent on reduced class sizes when we have numerous other competing priorities is an exercise in futility.

Please, the next time you negotiate with the union, if you do get re-elected, make class size limits part of the initial positions in the negotiations so that we don't continually have these arguments. Also make public both the unions and the districts initial positions in these negotiations, which is standard practice that the board should be following for public school negotiations.


32 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 9, 2016 at 11:36 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Making reductions in class size part of the teachers' union negotiations forces both the District and the teachers to address the trade off between higher salaries and lower class sizes. It would be very interesting if teachers who are so supportive of giving children a better education refused to accept reductions in class size because it would reduce the size of their pay increase.


8 people like this
Posted by Who is Minding the Store?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2016 at 11:56 am

New Superintendent and board members seeking re-election or using school board as a springboard for higher office got to use the negotion to buy off the teachers and the union. I won't use the word "bribe", but it does kind of look that way.


4 people like this
Posted by A Resident
a resident of Mayfield
on Jun 9, 2016 at 12:16 pm

@Minding - I wish it were that calculating, it implies a level of thought and understanding beyond what there really is. Aside from Heidi, none of that group will be seeking to higher office, and incumbents don't need to worry about reelection. It is more that they relied on bad data or no data, and were happy to hope for the best about future revenue. When the recession hits, we'll have higher high school class sizes - that's the decision they made.


6 people like this
Posted by au contraire
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 9, 2016 at 1:56 pm

"It would be very interesting if teachers who are so supportive of giving children a better education refused to accept reductions in class size because it would reduce the size of their pay increase."

According to Teri Baldwin, PAEA would have welcomed the class size article to have been part of the negotiations but no one from the board ever raised it during eight months of negotiations.

This is what I find so frustrating with Ken's response and his attempt to separate the negotiations from class size reductions. There was a golden opportunity there - wasted!


4 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jun 9, 2016 at 3:28 pm

Ken Dauber said -"There's a confusion between negotiating with the teachers union about maximum allowable class sizes, and negotiating a contract that leaves enough money left to hire teachers to reduce actual class sizes."

Actually there is no confusion - did the contract negotiation start off with the District demanding to withhold reserve money for more teachers or not? The impression I have is that nobody (including Dauber)brought up the issue at the beginning and only after the negotiations were over (or at least nearly over) did Dauber try to change the deal. That is simply a backwards process. If the deal had not been approved the negotiations would have started over again, wasting months of effort.


3 people like this
Posted by Who is Minding the Store?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 9, 2016 at 10:44 pm

@au contraire,
That's pretty disingenuous - as if the teachers have no responsibility to the children or their working conditions. If the teachers knew all about it so that they were just sitting on their hands, then the teachers could have brought that up, too - nurses bring up working conditions that affect patient safety all the time in their union negotiations, even when it's not directly in their interest, not just the things that get them the most money.

I have completely lost all respect for the teachers' union, and I used to defend them. I don't know which is worse, the intellectual dishonesty of Baldwin's statement, the arrogance, the avoidance of personal responsibility, or that it was all done by people who are teaching our children.


2 people like this
Posted by Hindsight
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 10, 2016 at 6:53 am

That's right, MtS, blame the union for this board's failing.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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