Community gives feedback about budget shortfall

Palo Alto school district town hall and webinar allows parents and community members to voice concerns, ideas

Palo Alto school board members opened the floor on Wednesday, Sept. 7, to the community to answer questions and receive feedback regarding this year's multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, which caught the district off-guard in July and launched an effort to find cuts and revenue enhancements to close the gap.

The actual shortfall, previously reported as $3.3 million, is subject to change based on property-tax revenue growth by the end of the fiscal year, on June 30, 2017. In the past, actual tax-revenue growth has been higher than the Santa Clara County Controller's conservative estimate, meaning what is currently a $4.2 million shortfall is likely to decrease by the end of next June. The board's recommended budget reduction is $3.4 million, according to Superintendent Max McGee.

McGee led the meeting, which was also live-streamed, allowing community members to participate remotely by submitting questions and comments, which were largely addressed by McGee as well as Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak.

Part of the board's plan to immediately address the budget gap includes not going forward with filling three elementary-school teaching positions, especially given the current and unexpected underenrollment in elementary schools.

While class sizes are smaller at the elementary level, parents whose kids are in larger classes in middle and high schools raised their concerns Wednesday that more hiring, not less, is needed in the district.

While McGee stated that the board is maintaining its commitment to keep class sizes small, noting that average class sizes remain at or below union-contract requirements, this remained one of the main concerns during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting.

Chris Boyd, a parent whose daughter attends Jordan Middle School, expressed concern over what he called the school board's "serious lax in planning" in addressing overcrowding. In an effort to help solve this issue, he, along with other parents and Stanford University researchers, have put together a written plan for the board's consideration.

"We are hoping that the board extends a hand that comes out to work with us," he said.

Boyd stated that with 22, 25 and even 30 students in a portable, there is "no reason to have an expectation of learning," adding that he didn't think parents will back down from this issue.

McGee, who said he is receptive to Boyd's concern and proposed plan, suggested that Boyd attend an upcoming budget workshop on Oct. 13.

In answer to another question concerning class size, McGee noted that one way to address the issue would be to cap enrollment in Advanced Placement (AP) classes, which have the largest enrollment. He stressed, however, that this is something the district is not planning to do.

At one point Wednesday, teacher-to-student ratios from Article 9 of the teachers' union's Collective Bargaining Agreement were read aloud for further clarification regarding class sizes.

Parent Todd Collins, a candidate for school board this fall, later noted that these ratios -- widely understood as averages -- are actually staffing ratios. This means that ratios do not correspond to the actual number of students in any given classroom, which is why sometimes there are large discrepancies between classes.

"I don't think there's ever been a board discussion about that," Collins said, adding that board policy is largely silent on class size.

He suggested that it would be fruitful for the board to facilitate a discussion about desired class sizes and standards.

McGee, whose past experience at a private school with smaller classes was alluded to at a couple of points in the meeting, said that one policy that he has seen work involves setting a minimum and maximum class sizes.

"I would love to hear what the community would like -- and how we'll fund it," McGee said.

One online commenter provided an alternative point of view about class size, suggesting that the quality of the teacher is more important than the class size.

McGee qualified this, saying that from his experience, he has been in classes of 30 that feel like 20 and vice versa.

Additionally, the town hall meeting clarified questions concerning any expectations that funding to make up the budget shortfall could come from the PTA and Partners in Education (PiE): McGee stated that there is no such expectation. When asked about how PiE funds are allocated, Mak said that PiE funds are part of long-term budgeting and that principals have control over how funds are used. Funds go toward a variety of needs, from enrichment activities to counselors.

In answer to a question regarding how much money is received from Proposition 30, Mak stated that $2.4 million is received annually and that it expires in 2018 unless it is renewed in November.

Before addressing questions and comments, McGee opened the meeting with a presentation that provided context concerning the budget shortfall and plans to address it in the next two years.

McGee reiterated that the shortfall for the district, whose budget relies largely on property-tax revenues, was largely due to unanticipated tax exemptions -- primarily $1.2 billion in exemptions from the major expansion of Stanford hospitals. Also, this year's property taxes increased at a lower percentage than expected, unlike in the last three years, which saw a large tax increase between June and July.

McGee also pointed out that since the news of the shortfall, the board has met with the Stanford individual in charge of filing exemptions and has been made of aware of the date exemptions are filed, as well as the fact that the district can be in conversation with the County Assessor, even on a weekly basis.

The board has resolved to address the shortfall over the next two years with the goal of not tapping into the district's reserves, which total $53.6 million -- 5 percent above the district's recommended reserve amount and 12 percent above the state's.

"It's kinda cloudy out, but it's not raining yet," McGee said, in reference to the district's current degree of concern.

District staff have proposed various means to compensate for the shortfall, including increasing rental income from district facilities, which was increased in July; district office budget reductions; rollbacks for recent funding additions including the per pupil amount, which right now stands at $75-175 per pupil; eliminating specific non-teaching-related personnel and positions; considering a new model for administrative salary increases that would include retroactive raises and non-compounded compensation; reallocating money for salaries and textbooks; and reinstating the practice of using the Strong Schools Bond Fund, rather than the General Fund, for upgrades to technology.

The 2016-17 budget schedule will be up for the school board's approval on Sept. 27. The next board meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 13, and the next town hall meeting and webinar about the budget is scheduled for Sept. 15.

Related content:

Palo Alto school board eyes more conservative budget projections

Palo Alto school board to continue budget-management discussion

Palo Alto school board opts against any quick action on budget shortfall


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26 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 8, 2016 at 8:06 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

I heartily applaud Mr. Boyd for his efforts on class size. If he wants to get in touch with Save the 2,008, we'll do everything in our power to help.

And cheers to board candidate Todd Collins for wanting sensible reform too.

On the other hand, it's dismaying and inexplicable that "McGee stated that the board is maintaining its commitment to keep class sizes small, noting that average class sizes remain at or below union-contract requirements..."

In a cogent guest opinion in the Weekly on May 9th, Sally Kadifa and Rita Tetzlaff patiently and publicly explained why the union-contract number is meaningless:

"According to the most recent enrollment data obtained from Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), the two high schools together have a total of 1,953 classes listed in the database.

"But 776 of these classes (40 percent) have eight or fewer students, or are non-instructional classes such as advisory and tutorial.

"These types of classes are found in every department across both schools. Some of these sections are opportunities for special need or advanced students to receive credit for individualized instruction or independent study or for students receiving class credit for being teaching assistants.

"And yet, these small sections are averaged in with all the other instructional classes in the department and school to determine staffing ratios.

"These very small classes bring down the overall average class sizes to below or near the range of the official target ratios, thus misrepresenting to the community and the school board how large most classes at our high schools really are.

Last fall I hand-counted the number of high-school classes in the district, from the spreadsheet Mr. McGee's staff sent me. There were 407 classes with thirty or more teenagers in the room. For last year's spring semester, trustee Ken Dauber has said, there were 425 such classes.

This isn't as debilitating as our county jails but it's headed that way.

It makes no sense to be putting our high-schoolers on "wellness teams" or sending them to "wellness centers"--which we barely leave them time to do, anyway--for some kind of relief when we sent them right back, day after day, into overcrowded rooms that where the social-emotional fabric is under stress, weak, or torn entirely.

The numbers, for both teachers and students, are implacable:

If you're in class of thirty, as opposed to twenty, there is less chance your hand will be called on in class discussion, there is less chance you'll get a helpful conference with your teacher just before or after the bell, there is less chance you'll get your homework back quickly, there's less chance it will have rich, tailored feedback, there's less chance your teacher (who may have an overall load of 125-150 students) will be available to see you after school, and there's less chance your teacher will be able to show up on Friday for your home basketball game or concert.

These myriad "less chances" pile up, day after day and year after year, into a huge deficit in learning and well-being. It's a matter of numbers and the numbers, right now, are working against our kids.

Marc Vincenti
Campaign Coordinator
Save the 2,008

22 people like this
Posted by PA bloated
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 8, 2016 at 8:49 pm

Cut PA administrative bloat and leave the teachers alone. We have plenty of property tax revenue.

33 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 8, 2016 at 11:36 pm

I expect to get my ballot in early October; that's how much time is left for the Board of Education & the Superintendent to come up with a solution without any financial trickery. If there is no solution by the time I get my ballot, or if the solution involves any financial hand waving, I will NOT be voting for either Heidi Emberling or Melissa Batten Caswell, because they have demonstrated they don't have the skills to budget, which I consider a minimum requirement for the job.

The Board and the Superintendent have known there was a problem since early July, and 3+ months is more than enough time to come up with a reasonable solution.

Tell your friends to the same.

31 people like this
Posted by retired guy who follows the schools
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 9, 2016 at 3:50 am

retired guy who follows the schools is a registered user.

"common sense," I'm doing the same. No vote from me for Heidi Emberling or Melissa Caswell.

Ya gotta like Mr. McGee asking for help: "I would love to hear what the community would like--and how we'll fund it."

OK, well, when he wanted to build his "super school" at Cubberley, it came out sounding as if plenty of Silicon Valley deep-pockets types were ready, willing, and able to fork over millions.

Wouldn't their names and numbers and email addresses still be in McGee's phone memory or email accounts? Hey, how hard is it to email, or make a call?

Sure, some donors may say no, 'cause it won't get their name on a new building. On the other hand however we're talking about schools whose kids have killed themselves even just last April (sorry to bring this up), and smaller classes are gonna probably keep kids more sane and grounded--and they'll maybe "bond" with a favorite teacher (like I did in high school) who helps them de-escalate and keep going.

My point is: Silicon Valley is rolling in money, WOW is it rolling in money, but we have students unhappy enough to do these sad things--so just move some of the damn money where it could so something useful.

I heard Zuckerberg pledged a few years ago, like, $30 million to New Jersey schools. He lives right here. And I'm sure he's got a lot of successful friends who live around here too!

Please, McGee, make some phone calls! The worst people can do is say no.


5 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 9, 2016 at 9:24 am

Class size is not the answer to everything.

Money will not always bring about the best changes.

So, a big impact, free fix would be to limit technology that limits teacher contact in real time and prevents them from differentiation, checking for understanding in person or with comments while they are online. There needs to be a limit per age group on daily screen time. I think each teacher may think theirs is the only class and not realize the entire load of all other classes.

Sal Kahn is a great resource, but he can not see a kid start to cry and know their emotional limits while learning.

This is a free fix that could be done easily by prudent administrators.

13 people like this
Posted by That's Right!
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 9, 2016 at 9:40 am

To "retired guy who follows the schools," you are 100 percent correct that Zuckerbergs should pony up the shortfall. He has a social responsibility to use a tiny portion of his obscene wealth to make this problem go away. I know his PR shills will slam this idea, claiming not to be his shills... I expect that. But the truth is right there for everyone to see. Its pocket change to him and life altering for the kids in the district. And so let us start right now a movement to call upon the Zuckerbergs to open their fat wallets to the community in its time of need.

26 people like this
Posted by Own Up
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2016 at 11:34 am

Own Up is a registered user.

@ PA Online: "multimillion-dollar budget shortfall, which caught the district off-guard in July".

The PA School Board was not "caught off guard". Rather, they were irresponsibly aggressive in their budget calculations and teacher/administrator raises instead of conservatively approaching the budgeting process. This "shortfall" was completely avoidable! Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone advised the numbers the School Board were given were not net numbers. Larry is quoted in the PA Online 7/15 article: "We meet with them for just this reason, so they can clearly understand that these are just monthly gross numbers, not net numbers," he said. "If you're a finance director or superintendent of Palo Alto Unified, you know there's a lot of exempt property," he said. "These aren't rookies here." And now our School Board is wasting precious time trying to figure out how to fix this massive mistake which has long term consequences.

How dare the PA School Board claim after the fact to be or ignorant about the huge Stanford tax exemptions and "surprised" by the shortfall. The School Board was warned. Own up!

43 people like this
Posted by Parent of 2
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 9, 2016 at 12:27 pm

Denial runs deep at PAUSD. Max spent the first 20 minutes of this meeting trying to explain how "out of the blue" the shortfall was, even though the data he gave clearly showed the exact same thing happened 5 years ago! The difference was that then we didn't give out teacher raises in advance, an innovation brought to us by ... Dr. McGee! And cheered on by board members Emberling and Caswell. Oops!

The latest "plan" is still smoke & mirrors. McGee said he wouldn't use "reserves" but does plan to use "last year's surplus" - which normal people would call...reserves! He's also proposing to use $1.2 million in long-term bond funding to pay for short-term IT equipment - even Caswell dumped on that idea at the last board meeting. And counting 2.2 teacher spots "we couldn't fill" as a savings - that's the same as cutting teachers, which is the LAST thing we should cut.

We've got a long way to go on this one, folks.

22 people like this
Posted by Muddied
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2016 at 12:38 pm

Muddied is a registered user.

The PAUSD got themselves into this fix, they have only themselves to blame--and they should cowboy up and fix "their" mistakes themselves!

They should even entertain a single thought of trying to extort more money from residents to fix their carelessness.

30 people like this
Posted by "Plan with certainty!"
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 9, 2016 at 1:18 pm

Somebody sent me this gem from last spring. Rich in irony: "This new agreement enables ... the district ... to plan for their financial futures with certainty"!

Wow! Yes, we have certainty alright - certainly messed up.

Web Link

PAUSD and Bargaining Units Reach Historic Agreement

The three-year contract a first of its kind for PAUSD as the school district’s practice has typically been to negotiate during the school year and for the current school year. This new agreement enables both the district and the employees to plan for their financial futures with certainty and sustainability.

I applaud the good work of all parties involved and the historic milestone they have helped the district reach,” said Board of Education President Heidi Emberling.

13 people like this
Posted by Actual not average class sizes are important
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 9, 2016 at 2:26 pm

Actual not average class sizes are important is a registered user.

We should have ACTUAL classes sizes equal to the teachers' contract - NOT average ESPECIALLY in 7th and 8th grade (and my kids are in college). 7th grade is the first year the students change classes for every subject. A large class size makes it SO much harder for a teacher to get to know the students.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Midtown

on Sep 9, 2016 at 2:29 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

25 people like this
Posted by Outrageous
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 9, 2016 at 2:30 pm

It is so embarrassing and depressing that our district leadership and board made this incredible blunder. Certainly high level Churchill based admins should NOT be receiving their "me too" raises at all.

In a situation where finances are looking unexpectedly flush (falsely so, it turns out) the appropriate option would have been to offer a small raise, that always incurs compounding and benefits expenses, partnered with a substantial bonus based on good finance numbers. Then when things don't turn out as expected the bonus does not need to happen. If money is overflowing, then sure float out the bonuses.

Appalling that our district staff is inept with finances. Appalling that they are still acting like this was an unforseeable downturn when in fact it was clear error, or worse intentional fudging. Appalling that union negotiations are conducted with such clear inherent conflicts of interest.

24 people like this
Posted by Outrageous
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 9, 2016 at 2:37 pm

No reason the Zuckerbergs should bail out our wealthy but mis-managed school district. (Maybe the suggestion was a joke.)
Honestly, there are so many much needier places their money should go.

I am very tired of the assumption that more, free money is always available. "It's Palo Alto. Everyone's rich." We need proper stewardship of the existing budget. Why should anyone want to give more money to an institution (however important it's responsibilities are) that doesn't know how to create a livable budget?

32 people like this
Posted by Taxpayer
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2016 at 2:37 pm

By the way every one of these bad decisions was made over the strong objections of board member Ken Dauber. He not only objected to the size of the raise, he gave a presentation about what a bad idea it was. When these folks talk about how they made the best possible decision at the time ask them why they didn't listen to Dauber.

16 people like this
Posted by Sumbuddy
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 9, 2016 at 2:44 pm

Hey, 'That's Right', a big part of the problem is the OBSCENE salary MANY of the teachers and the incompetent District Administrators are taking home. Web Link
Wealthy people in the private sector actually earn their money, they don't vote themselves raises based on a concept as childish as 'me too'. Private citizens don't owe a thing to a wasteful enterprise like the government. They pay taxes, and that's all they owe. These people would have been gone in an instant if they worked in the private sector. Throwing hard earned money at a government problem NEVER works, it only deepens the corruption.

32 people like this
Posted by Board watcher
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 9, 2016 at 3:25 pm

McGee's attempt on Wednesday to obfuscate the source of the projection error was consistent with what he has been doing. He's evidently trying to protect his staff. The truth as Larry Stone said is that Mak should have asked whether there would be any large exemptions to offset the increase in property values. Obviously the assessor knew that $1.2 billion of the property value increase was at Stanford, and that $1.2 billion would be exempt. This was just a dumb error.

Where McGee broke some ground on Wednesday was saying there would be significant cuts in district office staffing including some cuts this year. That is a big change from a few weeks ago. That is probably due to Dauber's repeating at board meetings and in the newspaper for the last two months that there need to be deep cuts, and Caswell joining him in the last board meeting - and Collins who may well be on the board soon chiming in.

There is still a lot of daylight between Dauber and McGee but it is narrowing and it's because McGee is moving. If Dauber keeps pushing on rescinding the 4% admin raise will McGee fold on that? Will the other board members?

Unhappy campers in the room on Wednesday: Jorge Quintana, the PR guy who Godfrey and Dauberhave targeted for obsolescence, and Scott Bowers, the hapless HR director who has already lost the increased staff that the two targeted in June but were outvoted, and will probably lose more in any DO staff purge.

8 people like this
Posted by It's About the Children
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 9, 2016 at 6:04 pm

I agree with the commentators that Zuckerberg should step up [portion removed]. Someday his kids will be students her. To those that are fixated on blaming school officials, your rigidity only hurts the children. When all is said and done, it's not about the administrators it's about the children. [Portion removed.]

24 people like this
Posted by get rid of them
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 9, 2016 at 7:43 pm

Zuckerberg is not responsible for the incompetence and arrogance at PAUSD.

The only thing PAUSD has shown is that when they're given more more money, they blow it.

18 people like this
Posted by Stan
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 9, 2016 at 9:06 pm

McGee and his now, very over paid inner circle of administrators, completely blundered the budget. Inexplicably, most of the PAUSD Board concurred, and THAT does not seem to be the problem. Any solution moving forward advanced by McGee would appear to require, eventually, cuts in some form or another cuts to student spending. Spending on his me-too raise is off limits.

Time to let McGee's contract run out and find a replacement. Time for a mostly new school bard too, in my opinion.

21 people like this
Posted by Question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2016 at 12:40 am

What I have gathered from these discussions is this: Scott Bowers negotiates on behalf of the district, representing families, with the teachers union. To do his job, he's supposed to keep costs as low as possible while ensuring quality of employment.

But Scott Bowers gets a Me Too raise if he gives the teachers as much as he can possibly give them. With all the other raises, his salary has gone up around 25% in the last few years. Scott Bowers is married to a teacher, according to many posters. This creates a further conflict of interest. Bowers has a personal interest in wnsuring as much money is given away as possible because he personally benefits.

How can this be legal? (Something I hear myself say so often in regards to the behavior at 25 Churchill.)

4 people like this
Posted by It's About the Children
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2016 at 8:11 am

To "get rid of them," you miss the point. You say Zuckerberg is not responsible. Who said he was? [Portion removed.] I can tell you this , should I ever find myself with this type of wealth, I would help with no questions asked. [Portion removed.]

12 people like this
Posted by FollowTheMoney
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 10, 2016 at 8:36 am

Before we shakedown Zuck or any citizens, shouldn't Max go back to the teachers, admit he screwed up, negotiated on bad data (or bad faith), and ask for the money back?

After all, he should have a lot of goodwill with the staff. If the cries of "think of the children" ring true in the teachers hearts, they'll contribute to the solution.

It might make Max less willing to take the me-to raise...

8 people like this
Posted by My Palo Alto
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2016 at 9:06 am

[Post removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 13, 2016 at 9:06 am

Why do we take what Larry Stone says for granted? His office is as clear as mud, so I highly doubt they were clear to the school district. Not, that I don't think the district made a big mistake, but I bet the assessor's office helped with the mistake.

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

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