Watching the impact of budget cuts
Publication Date: Wednesday Sep 20, 1995

Watching the impact of budget cuts

In January, the Palo Alto school district was forced to make $3 million in budget cuts in order to eliminate a deficit. The budget-cutting process went surprisingly smoothly, with the district office giving each school a target amount to cut, but leaving the specifics up to the school sites. High schools had to cut $300,000; middle schools $200,000 and elementary schools $18,000.

Even the school board's public hearing on the cuts was fairly free of ill will. "One reason the public hearing was so short was because there was community buy-in at the school level before it ever hit the school board," said PTA Council President Cathy Kroymann. "A lot of people had their say, and they were heard."

But the smooth process won't temper the impact of the cuts. "Those cuts were real. They're going to hurt," said outgoing board member Diane Reklis.

Added Kroymann: "I definitely think it's something we need to monitor and not be afraid to say we made a mistake. The administration has been cut to the bare bones." With reductions in human services, community relations and other areas, administrators are adding even more to their long job titles.

"I'm worried that the support services that are needed for students are getting cut back when those problems seem to be multiplying and the number of kids is multiplying," said Edie Miller, a former PTA president at Palo Alto High School.

The impact of the cuts is beginning to show. Over the summer, parent Marge Quackenbush, a close observer of the school board for many years, heard of one instance in which a substitute teacher was assigned to a class for orthopedically handicapped children, but the aides assigned to the class were not trained in how to lift the children. In another case, a substitute teacher was assigned to teach a swimming class but she didn't have water safety training.

Said Quackenbush: "At some point, you get to the place where you do begin to impact the ability of teachers to carry forth their mission."

There are some who say that the district got itself into this situation by not sticking to recommendations of a 1988 advisory committee report which forecast that property tax revenue would grow by 6-7 percent.

That document, known as the Committee 2000 report, predicted an overall district revenue growth rate of slightly lower, and advised that the district restrain its spending to keep pace with revenue growth.

The district, said school board candidate Jim Maples, should have limited the growth of expenditures to 6 percent. "What happened was we had a couple of good years, and let expenditures get out of hand. If we had a little more control of things . . . it should have never gotten to that point in the first place. Expenditures should not have been allowed to rise."

Fellow candidate Kate Feinstein agrees. "Financial governance of the district is one of the major issues of this campaign," said Feinstein, a former PTA Council president. "We have run an operating deficit three years in a row which I believe could have been avoided.

"(The board) made a decision to balance the budget by taking money out of the principal of the property fund with no plan to repay it. They called it a loan but it's not a loan."

Others say the district has done what it could under adverse economic conditions, and has justifiably drawn on the $15 million property fund--comprising revenue from the sale and lease of school sites--only as a means of making up short-term deficits, as it did in the last fiscal year when it borrowed $2.6 million from the fund before making the $3 million cuts.

"The property fund (is) to provide a cushion in a shortfall," said John Tuomy, former co-chair of the Measure B school bond campaign and a school board candidate. "You can use it provided you have a mechanism in place to put money into the fund in good times. That takes political will. If we lose basic aid we'd have a $6 million hit. We need reserves."

It will be up to the school board this year to "be very attuned to whether there are sufficient people to fill the needs," said board member Susie Richardson, who is running for reelection this fall. Also, she added, "we're talking about repaying the property fund loans," alluding to board discussions about how to spend one-time state money this fiscal year. --Elizabeth Darling 

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