Palo Alto school board approves first round of measures to address budget shortfall

Dauber: 'We have not yet met the situation with the appropriate level of urgency'

A majority of the Palo Alto school board backed a series of budget measures -- some ongoing, some short term; some non-instructional and others closer to the classroom -- to make this year to start to mitigate a $4.2 million deficit, despite the continued urging of one trustee to take a more "prudent" approach.

In a 4-1 vote, with Trustee Ken Dauber dissenting, the board approved $3.4 million in budget measures recommended by staff. The list of 13 proposals -- some budget cuts and others, alternative revenue sources -- for the 2016-17 year include trimming $612,000 from the district office, using voter-approved bond funds instead of General Fund dollars to pay for $1.2 million in technology upgrades and redirecting an estimated $773,000 from reserves, among others.

Calling the district’s approach fiscally irresponsible, Dauber proposed several amendments to this list, none of them gaining support from his colleagues.

By Dauber's own analysis, just over half of the measures the board ultimately approved are temporary (about $2.4 million) and the rest (about $1.8 million) are long term. They’re also closely split between non-instructional and instructional cuts, he said -- about $612,000 of the former and about $500,000 of the latter.

"I don’t believe that this recommendation represents a fiscally responsible approach to our budget problem, as I’ve said in the past, in that it relies substantially on spending district reserves, the fund balance and on borrowing to close a gap that I think we should be instead looking to close through cutting spending that isn’t related to our educational mission," Dauber said.

Dauber unsuccessfully advocated for finding more long-term, recurring and non-instructional cuts in this year’s budget. He proposed that the board direct the superintendent to come up with potential ongoing expense cuts instead of borrowing by using the bond funds for technology updates and spending reserves; to rescind the most recent salary increase provided to non-represented senior administrators effective Oct. 1; to further reduce non-instructional spending and redirect savings from unfilled teachers and specialists positions back to the classrooms; and eliminate the district's new full-time communications coordinator position, effective Nov. 1.

Though none of his colleagues seconded these amendments, several did express support for considering some of his proposals for the 2017-18 budget and beyond. Some also said they support revising the district’s longtime practice of automatically providing senior administrators the same compensation increases negotiated with the teachers union.

Dauber also reiterated concerns about the effect the budget shortfall could have on class sizes at the district's two high schools, which are starting to see increased enrollment as a large "bubble" class moves through the middle schools.

While the district has set aside dollars in the budget to hire more teachers to accommodate enrollment growth, “the risk that we’re running in not cutting our non-educational spending now is arriving at that point without the funds to hire those teachers," Dauber said.

His colleagues, by contrast, supported the staff recommendation without much hesitation. They argued that using the bond funds for technology upgrades is appropriate given it’s what voters approved those dollars for; that the district will not dip into reserves to the point that they drop below a required level; and that looking for more savings at the district office, for example, successfully keeps cuts farther away from students in the classroom.

Trustee Camille Townsend, however, was again critical of the district’s decision to enter into its first-ever multi-year contract with the teachers and classified unions. Promising three years of raises when the district receives much critical budget information, such as property-tax revenue, late in the fiscal year, was a "huge mistake," she said.

Vice President Terry Godfrey also recounted a meeting she and President Heidi Emberling had with the Santa Clara County Assessor last week to better understand how the district can avoid being surprised again by lower-than-projected property-tax revenue. District staff have said they are now in more consistent communication with the assessor’s office, as well as with Stanford University officials to monitor property exemptions that come in from the university’s major hospital construction.

Parent Todd Collins, who is running for a seat on the school board in the November election, echoed Dauber’s criticisms, arguing that the approach of using reserves and bond funds is "actually increasing the risk to the things we really care about -- preserving electives and favorite programs, reducing class sizes, funding our special ed and achievement-gap programs. 

"We need to stop spending reserves now so we have them when we really need them," Collins said, pointing to projections that show at least five years of multi-million dollar deficits -- deficits that grow substantially depending on the size of compensation increases for teachers. (Employee salaries and benefits account for 85 percent of the district’s overall expenditures).

While Tuesday's discussion was mostly limited to this year’s budget, the largest proposal for savings next year by far is an estimated $2.5 million, which the district attributes to re-negotiating compensation increases with the district’s teachers and classified unions, as well as adjusting raises provided to senior administrators. The district’s current five-year forecasts, though "for projection purposes only," use 1 percent raises from 2018-19 through 2020-21. The new multi-year contracts originally promised a 12 percent base salary increase for teachers over three years.

The board will hear more concrete staff recommendations around measures for the 2017-18 budget at a special meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 18, which Emberling called a "great opportunity" to evaluate $13 million in programs, services and positions the district has added over the last four years.

How would the candidates vote?

As part of the Palo Alto Weekly's election coverage, we will be asking the candidates who are running for Palo Alto Board of Education how they would vote -- and why -- on significant issues that the board takes action on before November.

This week, the Weekly asked the three non-incumbent candidates how they would vote on the two budget options presented to the board Tuesday night and if they would have seconded several failed amendments proposed by Trustee Ken Dauber.

Jay Cabrera: I would vote "yes" on option two in relation to the recommendations of the staff.

In regards to my overall perspective, we should be cutting less line items affecting student education, and reducing the amount of money in the reserves.

I do not agree with the budget process, and want it to be much more participatory. I also do not agree that 10 percent of the budget should be in reserves. The taxpayers pay the money to be spent on student education, not just (to) sit there waiting for a rainy day. I understand having some reserves, but we are talking about the ability to spend an extra million dollars a year for over 30 years.

Editor's note: Cabrera said after deadline for this story that while rescinding managers' raises is "very difficult and has other consequences," Dauber's other proposals are "quite reasonable."

Todd Collins: I would not have voted for the budget-balancing options presented. As I said last night, the proposed approach -- relying almost exclusively on spending reserves, borrowed funds and not filling instructional positions -- actually increases the risk that we'll have larger class sizes, fewer electives and fewer student programs later, when the inevitable cyclical downturn comes. We're using reserves that we may need later, without even considering potential expense cuts -- that's not prudent.

I would have seconded the amendments proposed by Mr. Dauber, since they called for the superintendent to provide options to the board for cutting expenses this year, as an alternative to spending reserves and borrowing. This is what the board has needed all along. "Good options make good choices" -- the board has needed meaningful options to look at and discuss, but none have been presented.

Jennifer DiBrienza:

I would not have voted for the option that went forward. We have a structural budget deficit and I prefer to fix the problem sooner rather than later. Currently, we are addressing the immediate shortfall for this year, as well as looking ahead to next year to make cuts that bring us within budget. Last night’s proposal draws too significantly from temporary buckets of money that will not sustain us going forward. I would have liked to have seen more immediate operational cuts.

I would not, however have voted in support of Mr. Dauber’s amendments. Class size is an issue and must be addressed by the board but the three unnecessary elementary positions do not solve this issue. And, while I support ending the "me, too" raises, I am not in favor of rescinding what has already been provided to our principals who are balancing a monthly budget.

Editor's note: DiBrienza clarified after providing her initial response that she would have supported Dauber's first proposal to direct the superintendent to identify ongoing expense cuts for this year instead of borrowing by using the bond funds for technology updates and spending reserves, but not his other amendments.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

This story was updated to correct a statement that teacher compensation accounts for 85 percent of the district's expenditures. That percentage represents all employee salaries and benefits.

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55 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 28, 2016 at 10:01 am

Unfortunately I cannot vote for either incumbent, Heidi Emberling or Melissa Caswell-Baten because they demonstrated they are using financial trickery (using reserves needed during a recession, using 30 year bonds to buy PCs that last 5 years, etc). to balance the budget.

Any board member should have the basic skill of budgeting, and sadly these two incumbents have shown they lack the skill of budgeting. I was hoping that with 4 to 8 years of experience of budget reviews, these two incumbents would have the knowledge and skill to direct the superintendent and district staff which line items would be reduced or cut - this has proven that they don't have a clue about the budget.

I urge all to NOT vote for either incumbent, and tell your neighbors and parents of classmates to do the same.

Jennifer Dibrienza - you should stop with the platitudes, and give specifics. If you did so, you could earn my vote. You have a chance to show you meet the minimum requirements to do the job.

47 people like this
Posted by Voter
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 28, 2016 at 11:17 am

The contrast between Collins on the one hand and Dibrienza and the incumbents on the other hand couldn't be sharper. What sense does it make to say that you want more cuts but then that you wouldn't have voted for any of Dauber's amendments to actually make more cuts? I'm amazed that the school board thinks it makes sense to cut money from teaching rather than firing the PR flack or cleaning house at 25 Churchill, and that Dibrienza agrees with them.

58 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 28, 2016 at 11:20 am

We need more responsible, decent people like Dauber to take care of public issues in the community.

12 people like this
Posted by parent Juana Briones
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 28, 2016 at 11:32 am

This is frustrating, of course.

I think most non-educators know very little about the $$ districts are *forced* to spend by legislation. Special Ed is the law, and Special Ed is very, very expensive... especially when the district gets sued or when SpEd parents win the right to have PAUSD pay for placement in a private school. These and so much other mandated spending are huge ticket items that really tip the scale when money is crunched.

Don't blame the teachers. They get pasted in this discussion every time money comes short.

14 people like this
Posted by Special Education Cuts
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 28, 2016 at 11:51 am

Special Education Cuts is a registered user.

The cuts approve dis-proportionally affect special needs learners. Literacy teachers, Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs) and Instructional Coaches either directly teach special needs students or show teachers ways to teach to these student's learning differences.
The Board did not seem to know what the teachers they are cutting were for. It is amazing they come into meetings and take votes not understanding these basics.

11 people like this
Posted by Special Education Cuts
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 28, 2016 at 12:07 pm

Special Education Cuts is a registered user.

@parent at Juana Briones - The attorney fees for lawsuits were predominantly from the District suing families of the disabled and a silly resolution condemning the federal government's Office of Civil Rights when it found the District did not stop bullying of disabled students to the point they could not attend school.
Most PAUSD disabled students do not attend private schools or even attend special education classes. The District has effectively worked to mainstream students as much as possible. But it cannot help all children. If they are suicidal or harming themselves or others, they can't stay in the same classrooms. Sometimes the costs of public are higher than a special needs school, if the student needs aides and special teachers and security to be on a public school campus. A private school may be cheaper. From what I see, most private schools, especially for disabled children, operate on a shoestring budget, with teachers earning far less than PAUSD.

29 people like this
Posted by Shame on Max McGee and Board
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 28, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Revoke automatic salary increases for non-represented senior administrators. They obviously did not do their job. They should have resigned.

Revoke multi-year salary increase plan for teachers. Or, they'd better work harder at their job whose performance at best is uneven across the district. Taxpayers are watching what they or their kids are getting in return.

43 people like this
Posted by Stew Pid
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 28, 2016 at 12:40 pm

There is no clearer sign than this vote,to underscore the importance of dumping Heidi and Melissa off this board.

25 people like this
Posted by Punishments
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2016 at 1:14 pm

So these jerks are going to make budget cuts that punish our children? Especially the special needs children??

The people who should be punished first and foremost are the administrators, of which there are far too many. About half should be laid off, the other half should take pay cuts, nice fat ones like most of the rest of us took in the financial crisis of 2008!

Those are the only budget cuts needed, and they will directly punish the people responsible for this district financial crisis.

It's only fair-- punishing the children is not!

18 people like this
Posted by Confused
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 28, 2016 at 3:26 pm

Wasn't Caswell against spending bond money on laptops rather than buildings? What happened?

26 people like this
Posted by Terman mom of 1
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 28, 2016 at 5:01 pm

Re Caswell flip-flop: "Both Dauber and Melissa Baten Caswell pressed staff to look for cuts that can be made to save money this year, rather than making cuts to address the shortfall over two years, as staff recommended. Both also expressed opposition to staff's proposal to use $1.2 million in general funds that in previous years has been spent on technology updates (bond funds would be used instead for the technology upgrades)." From August 26 PA online: Web Link

Melissa should explain why she threw in the towel on budget cuts to protect our students. Before the election. I'm voting for Collins and any one else who is running who will show some spine. I do not want huge classes when my son moves to Gunn.

29 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 28, 2016 at 5:13 pm

Is it just me or is Dibrienza just more of the same? She talks about "being the educator on the school board" - isn't that what Heidi Emberling said she was? I don't see any difference between her and the incumbents, on this issue or really on any issue.

21 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 28, 2016 at 5:35 pm

Dibrienza seems a little more liberal on education issues than the incumbents. She was for the new experimental high school and wants to reform math education, not sure what that means. I'm going to a coffee with her so I'll see.

The budget issue worries me I am looking for board members who get it. This was a self inflicted wound from the teacher raise. I want someone who will vote with Ken.

26 people like this
Posted by Duveneck Guy
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 28, 2016 at 6:57 pm

Dibrienza's comments at the end are sort of odd. She wouldn't have voted for the staff proposal, or any of Dauber's amendments to do things differently. So she would have supported - doing nothing? She "prefers to fix the problem sooner than later." Umm, really, that's it?

34 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 28, 2016 at 7:15 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

My understanding from Ken Dauber's proposed amendments is that the budget measures just adopted leave classroom teaching and instructional-coaching positions unfilled to the tune of $500,000.

While keeping the District's "communications officer" position filled, to the tune of $150,000.

Those priorities seem upside-down!

When the District itself has projected a tidal wave of 600 new enrolled teenagers to hit the shores of Gunn and Paly by 2020, we ought to be looking at everything we can to mitigate the possible damage of that wave.

600 more kids means some 25 new teachers (a huge expense, just to keep our already out-sized classes from ballooning even more, never mind shrinking them!

Let's mind every nickel, every penny for the sake of future, livable high-school classroom--with stronger student-teacher ties, a healthier social fabric, extra educational TLC for kids battling the achievement gap, ample feedback on homework, and ample feedback from kids to teachers on how long it's taking them to DO that homework.

I hope that others' priorities will move much closer to those of Todd Collins and Ken Dauber.

Coordinator, Save the 2,008 -- creating hope for our high-schoolers

25 people like this
Posted by At least Collins and Dauber are honest
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 28, 2016 at 9:26 pm

DiBrienza's answer makes no sense. No the board isn't cutting enough but I would have voted against any effort to cut more. One of Dauber's amendments was to just tell the Superintendent to identify more cuts. She would have wanted more cuts but would have voted against identifying them. Clearly she either doesn't understand the situation (like Heidi) or doesn't care (like Melissa). Either way, she's totally the wrong person for the board at this time.

If you like 40 person AP Bio classes, vote for diBrienza. You will get them.

19 people like this
Posted by Voter
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 29, 2016 at 9:37 am

Weekly, I hope that you do an article about where all of the candidates stand on the budget issue before the election. This is the most important thing going on right now and for the next several years, probably. A sidebar doesn't do it. Based on what I know now, which is how the incumbents voted and what Dibrienza has said, I am voting for Collins only, but I really want more information and the only way to get it is in some more indepth interviews. Platitudes about wanting a balanced budget are not enough.

12 people like this
Posted by Furious
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 30, 2016 at 9:09 am

Furious is a registered user.

The Board and the Administrators of PAUSD got us into this mess. The budget cuts should not affect the students or the quality of their education!

The solution to this fiasco should be taken out of the hides of the responsible parties: layoffs and pay cuts--just like in any financial crisis!

17 people like this
Posted by Board watcher
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 30, 2016 at 11:45 am

The most interesting part of this story is Jennifer DiBrienza's late decision to support some of Dauber's amendments. She initially said she would have voted against them, and did not speak on the budget at the Tuesday school board meeting even though she was in the audience.

DiBrienza obviously thought again about the politics and decided she did not want to be seen agreeing with the incumbents about the budget. Unfortunately her initial reaction makes it hard for voters who are paying attention to believe that she is being sincere. During debates she has not been interested in going beyond platitudes. She is clearly closer to the board majority on the budget than she is to Dauber and Collins.

7 people like this
Posted by Jordan mom
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 30, 2016 at 2:08 pm

Dibrienza = more of the same

5 people like this
Posted by Jordan mom
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 30, 2016 at 2:16 pm

Also, I respect that Camille admits they made a mistake in doing the 3 year contract. You almost never see the board or the district admit a mistake, so it is nice to see her step up and tell it like it is. I don't always agree with her, but she is more outspoken and sometimes just more honest than the rest.

4 people like this
Posted by Teacher Cuts
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 30, 2016 at 5:38 pm

Teacher Cuts is a registered user.

The testing results presented show Special Education, Minorities and Disadvantaged Students doing poorly in PAUSD, despite money speny. Mr. Dauber pointed out we are not getting good results for money spent. He said PAUSD spends significantly more per pupil than comparable districts, but we are not getting significantly better results. Students with no resources except for PAUSD should be getting great results from their education. But they are not. Without access to outside resources such as tutoring, disadvantaged students are not succeeding.

Mr. Dauber suggested instead of cutting the teachers and instructional coaches, use the money to help disadvantaged, minorities, and special education students who had scores of only 39% meeting standards. McGee agreed the District is not committing any resources to this. No one on the Board wanted to do it, and then voted to cut funds for TOSAs and teacher coaches, a cost effective way to help the disadvantaged.

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

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