The Palo Alto school board mostly refrained from giving line-item feedback on a list of potential budget cutbacks for the next school year at a special meeting Tuesday morning, save in a few categories that board members characterized as being too close to the classroom.
The board convened to discuss 16 staff proposals for cuts to manage the school district's $4.2 million shortfall, the largest bucket coming from consolidation and reassignment of personnel positions at the district office and school sites. Staff suggested that six full-time teachers on special assignment (TOSAs) from the elementary and secondary levels could be reassigned to the classroom or otherwise restructured, and that schools could also look to shift the role of their instructional supervisors.
Several board members cautioned against making drastic changes to the instructional-supervisors program, hailing the people in that position as much-needed "academic leaders" and "mentors."
"We have instructional supervisors that are the pied pipers for their department," said board member Melissa Baten Caswell. "They're setting a standard for what we expect. ... I don't want to lose that."
Most board members also explicitly said they do not support a proposal to cut back the number of classified instructional aides in classrooms, particularly those who support students with learning disabilities. The district is still waiting to receive a set of final recommendations from an external review of its special-education services, and several board members urged staff to wait for that report before making any budget changes that affect students with learning disabilities.
Board member Ken Dauber pressed Superintendent Max McGee to provide a longer list of potential administrative cuts so the board can weigh those against cuts that are closer to the classroom. The list presented Tuesday, Dauber said, offered about 30 percent in administrative reductions compared to 70 percent in instructional cuts -- an imbalance, in his eyes, he said.
"We can complain about how negative it would be to make cuts in instructional services but unless we have alternatives that are not in instructional areas, all we're going to be able to do is complain and then bite the bullet at the end and make those cuts," Dauber said.
McGee said he would provide a more comprehensive list at the board's next budget discussion.
Staff have preliminarily proposed trimming $862,500 from the district office by reassigning, consolidating or eliminating four to five positions. This is in addition to $612,000 in reductions at the district office approved in this year's budget.
McGee noted that there will likely be more administrative savings given the district is also in the midst of working with Smarter School Spending for Student Success, an organization that provides free tools that help school districts more strategically and effectively align their resources with their priorities, according to its website.
Vice President Terry Godfrey requested more data around the district's historical growth at the district office over the last decade, including metrics like student enrollment and hiring levels, to better understand "if it's the right size for what we have now ... or how to make some sort of considered decisions," she said.
Board President Heidi Emberling cautioned staff and her colleagues to consider that history along with what she described as the "culture shift" in the district away from "more of school-based, site-based decision-making to more district-based accountability processes (and) more high-quality consistency across the district, which requires more leadership at the administrative level."
Dauber also stressed, later echoed by Godfrey and Emberling, that the budget deficit is an ongoing, multi-year problem, as indicated by the district's own projections, although staff continue to present cost-saving measures as part of a two-year plan.
Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak responded that it's "too soon to assume that we'll have a recurring deficit -- meaning it's too soon to assume that property-tax growth will be less than 4 percent every year after next year."
The district is currently budgeting with the assumption that there will be from 4.61 percent to 3.88 percent property-tax growth over the next five years, but planning for a more dire scenario with growth dropping under 3 percent.
McGee said the proposed cuts for 2017-18, which total $3.72 million, are "beyond what we even project we'll need."
The "big question," however, will be costly employee compensation in the outyears, he said.
The district's current budget projections provides for 1 percent annual raises, "which may or may not happen depending on our financial situation," Mak said.
The district will also have to make difficult trade-offs when it comes to managing class sizes at the high schools, according to two parents' analysis presented Tuesday.
Sally Kadifa and Rita Tetzlaff, who have been advocating for more investment in class-size reduction at the secondary schools since this spring, told the board that an additional 22 teachers are needed at the high schools to keep all core class sections under 32 students next year, according to analysis they conducted with the help of Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey.
The district has already budgeted for 12 additional high school teachers for next year.
Kadifa and Tetzlaff noted that even with 22 additional teachers, some classes would still fall short of the district's official class-size targets, which is 28.5 students for most high school courses, 24 students for freshman math and English classes and 26 students for sophomore English classes.
Given the fact that "budget constraints might make allocating 22 additional teachers to the high schools for next year challenging," Kadifa said that 16 additional teachers would allow the district to keep all but 13 percent of classes under 32 students, though already large classes could rise to as big as 37 students, Kadifa and Tetzlaff said.
The two parents cautioned that their analysis did not allocate any new sections for physical education nor popular electives like art, computer science, graphic design and journalism.
Board members lauded the parents' work and decided to hold a special study session on class size this fall to further discuss the issue.
The district will hold several more meetings on the 2017-18 budget, including at regular board meetings and in dedicated community forums, throughout the rest of this year and into early 2017.