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.