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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Palo Alto district fiercely protects basic-aid status Palo Alto district fiercely protects basic-aid status (April 03, 2002)

How far should demands for equity in school funding extend?

Palo Alto school officials actively lobby local Assemblyman Joe Simitian and other politicians in their fight to protect the district's "basic aid" status, which allows them to pull in millions of extra dollars in school revenue compared to other districts of similar size.

Most California districts, referred to as "revenue limit," receive roughly the same amount of money per student. Such districts locally include Redwood City, Ravenswood, Menlo Park and Los Altos. But a small subset, including Palo Alto and Las Lomitas in Menlo Park, hold a special status. These districts, located in more affluent areas, historically generate more revenue from property taxes for school funding than they would get from the state. So legislators have allowed them to retain their level of spending rather than drop down to the revenue limit.

It's a nuance Randy Kenyon, business manager for the Los Altos School District, finds himself explaining again and again. "We hear comparisons between ourselves and Palo Alto," he said. "Questions come up from community members, 'how come Palo Alto has more money than we do?' So I constantly have to explain the whole basic aid concept to folks."

In spite of Palo Alto's comfortable basic aid status, parents have time and again stood before their elected school board, arguing passionately about the need for funding equity among district schools. An extra $100 or $200 per student can have a profound effect on the quality of education students receive, they argued.

What parent wouldn't prefer to have their child join a classroom equipped with a new set of computers? Won't the best teachers flock to schools where parents raised money to reduce class size or funded the salary of a classroom aide to lend a helping hand?

And, they point out, while PTA fund raising is most successful at the wealthiest schools, it costs more on average to educate children in Palo Alto's more diverse neighborhoods where extra supports -- such as help learning English -- are more often needed.

Such arguments have won support from within the district, and many local parents are expecting the Palo Alto school board to vote in favor of a districtwide fund raising model that would ensure resources are dispersed more equitably among schools.

But what about equity outside Palo Alto's borders? Clearly it's a concern for parents whose children don't attend schools with basic aid status. The Los Altos district has set up a web page devoted to explaining how school funding works in California. According the site, Palo Alto receives $1,000 more per student than Los Altos. With roughly 10,000 students in Palo Alto, the extra funds add up to about $10 million.

Kenyon said having a wealthier district next door doesn't take away from the quality of Los Altos' educational program. But, he adds, "certainly districts that are not basic aid very quickly become envious of basic-aid districts when they see basic-aid districts getting more money."

On the other hand, Kenyon said, Los Altos isn't likely to criticize the two-tiered funding system too strongly, since the district is on the cusp of qualifying for basic aid status itself -- a small percentage increase in property values combined with a drop in enrollment would do the trick.

Arguments for the two-tier system are based on the premise that as long as funding for other districts meets a certain level of adequacy, schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods should be allowed to infuse their schools with more money. According to Simitian, there is little support for seeing those disparities evened out.

"That's an issue that has been widely debated in California over the last 15 years and the sort of well-settled consensus view is that to the extent districts generate local property taxes those funds should stay with local schools."

Not all of his constituents agree with that logic. Palo Altan Gilwee Walker Price, writing to the Weekly last spring, decided to take equity issues into her own hands. As a senior citizen she exempted out of Palo Alto's voter-approved parcel tax to fund local schools, saying she would send her money to a district that needed it more. "Yes, all children deserve the best support, nutrition, education, etc., but no select group (i.e. Palo Alto children) should get the best while the overwhelming percentage of others struggle with outdated leftovers and just plain neglect on many levels," she wrote.

Does the political will exist in California to raise spending for all schools up to the level of the wealthiest districts? Or even to compete with funding levels in other states?

"The reality is, we have a very strange state," said Palo Alto school board President John Barton. "We have one that claims education to be really important, but won't fund it."

Barton attributes much of Palo Alto's frenzy over PTA fund raising to the larger problem of low statewide investment in education. Even as a top-funded district, there's a understandable sense that the dollars being allocated simply aren't enough to maintain school programs and services parents believe their children deserve.

Kenyon sees the problem similarly. "I think the main thrust in the last few years is what to call adequate funding -- making sure enough dollars are going into schools to make a difference," he said. "In the sixties, California was in the top 10 in terms of funding; now we're in the bottom 10 of states (relative to per capita income). Legislators and governors, they've all been touting the need to put more money into schools because we need better education, and we all believe that." -- Jennifer Deitz Berry (E-mail Jennifer Deitz Berry at


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