Palo Alto school board members began to delve into the nitty-gritty of $3.9 million in budget cuts on Tuesday night, starting to identify item-by-item proposals they do or don't support slashing.
Trustees went through three lists compiled by staff, labeled "A" (proposed cuts), "B" (potential cuts) and "C" (cuts not being recommended at this time) and highlighted those they thought were in the wrong place. (A cut a board member sees as necessary might have been on the "B" or "C" list, for example.) They started by discussing three items that three or more board members said merited further review.
All five trustees opposed a staff recommendation to cut a visual arts coordinator position, which oversees the elementary schools' SPECTRA art program and staff, and give that person's responsibilities to a coordinator in charge of music and physical education.
The current arts coordinator, Sharon Ferguson, is retiring at the end of the year and the district decided to consolidate the role after her departure for a savings of about $186,000, Superintendent Max McGee told the board. He said that this would not mean a change in "quality or quantity" in art instruction, but rather a structural change necessary in hard budget times.
About a dozen parents and school art teachers spoke out against the staff recommendation, emphasizing the importance of having a leader with a strong visual arts background, particularly to handle the recruitment, training and mentoring of the artists who are hired to teach the elementary schools' art program.
"We get that you're not cutting art ... but to cut a dedicated coordinator position seriously marginalizes what happens in the elementary school," said longtime elementary art teacher Karen Lenke. "When teachers, even elementary art school teachers are impacted, the program will suffer."
Board members disagreed with McGee's explanation that the elementary arts program could function like the high schools' do, with instructional supervisors of different backgrounds (currently, music) overseeing both visual and performing arts teachers who are credentialed, while the SPECTRA artists are not.
"They need more support and development than a certificated teacher in a particular area," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said. "I think our investments reflect our values."
Vice President Ken Dauber floated an alternative: consolidating the administrative parts of the arts coordinator job into another position, and hiring part-time as necessary to fulfill the pedagogical side. McGee will return to the next budget discussion with more information about Dauber's suggestion.
Several board members also opposed a recommendation to not hire the equivalent of three high school teachers the board previously approved to help mitigate large class sizes, with a price tag of $375,000. Trustee Todd Collins said that with significant enrollment growth anticipated over the next four years at the high schools, "it's going to be easier to let those class sizes slip up."
He proposed, with support from at least two other board members, tapping a reserve fund set aside for opening a new school, which the district is no longer considering at this time, as a buffer to address ballooning class sizes.
Board members also mentioned the need for a formal class size policy to help guide decisions like this. The board's policy review committee is set to consider a class size policy this year.
On the list of potential cuts, board members voiced some concern about — but not explicit opposition to — cutting the district's new equity coordinator position, filled just last year by Martha Castellon, who was brought on to oversee the district's efforts to better support low-income and minority students and to reduce the achievement gap. She has spent much of this year working on iterations of a district-wide equity plan, which has yet to be formally approved by the board.
McGee said Tuesday that he would actually move this proposal to the "A" list of recommended cuts. The equity coordinator's responsibilities would go to either Judy Argumedo, the district's current director of academic supports and of the Voluntary Transfer Program, or to a principal on special assignment tasked with full-time equity work, McGee said. This would save the district an estimated $174,500.
Board President Terry Godfrey said it feels like the district has made progress on equity and asked McGee to return with a proposal that will ensure that forward momentum is sustained.
"I don't know what the personnel looks like ... or the organizational structure, but I don't want to take dollars out of that," she said.
The board also discussed program additions on the horizon that will cost the district money, as it is trying to find savings. They asked McGee to suggest alternative uses for about $230,000 proposed to revamp a parent liaisons program that has provided 12 part-timers to improve communication and connection between minority and low-income parents and their schools. The dollars should support minority and low-income students in some way, such as with more after-school tutoring, trustees said.
Other budget proposals that the board highlighted for further review included: a reduction of the teachers on special assignment program, a requirement that all classes have at least 10 students, rolling back $100,000 for elementary school field trip transportation, consolidating the middle school English as a Second Language program at one campus, cutting the Palo Alto Adult School principal position and rolling back all or part of "me too" raises given to senior administrators this year and reviewing school psychologists' time allotment across schools, among others.
With ample public comment on the budget and other topics, the board had a truncated discussion on the budget and decided to schedule a special study session before their next regular meeting on May 9.