Palo Alto school district eyes new budget priorities | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto school district eyes new budget priorities

Staff presents early budget proposals; will return to board in February with finalized list

A special Board of Education budget study session on Tuesday night offered a wide-ranging but still-preliminary look at where the Palo Alto school district would like to invest its dollars in the coming years, from the potential implementation of full-day kindergarten to the opening of a new secondary school.

The board convened Tuesday to discuss a long laundry list of budget proposals, mostly from district staff and the K-12 leadership team, which includes principals. The list includes seven new program proposals as well as funding requests to support still-to-be-implemented recommendations from the superintendent's Minority Achievement and Talent Development (MATD) advisory committee, forthcoming recommendations from an enrollment management committee, costs to potentially open new schools and to reduce class sizes.

The first item presented on Tuesday was to bring full-day kindergarten to Palo Alto, particularly to support historically underrepresented students. Full-day kindergarten was a recommendation from the MATD committee, which repeatedly stressed early education, intervention and support as critical means to help close the achievement gap in the school district.

Superintendent Max McGee said Tuesday that this proposal is unanimously supported by all principals in the district, from pre-kindergarten through high school. He added that when the minority-achievement committee tracked high school students who didn't meet the A-G graduation requirements back through their entire academic career in the district, many had already been falling behind by second and third grades.

"If you're behind in second and third grade, the chances of catching up are minimal at best," McGee said.

Research on students enrolled in full-day kindergarten demonstrates benefits such as greater progress in reading and math than those in half-day classes, increased social-emotional benefits and long-term educational benefits, particularly for minority and low-income students.

Board Vice President Heidi Emberling added that full-day kindergarten can ease transportation challenges for working parents, provides lower-cost childcare and allows families access to high-quality early education programs.

Palo Alto has already piloted full-day kindergarten programs at two sites, Palo Verde and Barron Park elementary schools. At Barron Park, students begin the year with a half-day program designed to introduce them to school life. In mid-October, they shift to staying until 2:30 p.m., except on minimum days, to allow for "structured social activities" and enrichment like music, physical education, art, dance, and science with the Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo, according to the school's website.

Other sites offer extended days two days a week. Staff recommended Tuesday that the district look to extend full-day kindergarten to up to six sites in the 2016-17 year with an estimated cost of $300,000.

Emberling said she's in support of full-day kindergarten, but urged a thoughtful approach. She compared it to preparing Gunn High School teachers for a shift to a new bell schedule at the start of this school year with extra professional development and education around the instructional shifts that were required by a new schedule.

"Like with block scheduling, we can't just implement a schedule change without providing professional development and support to our teachers as we navigate this," she said "The whole point of the benefits (of full-day kindergarten) of reducing disparities in academic readiness and improving connection to school and improving social-emotional connection and development with peers — you need to make sure that there's support that exists in the classroom, both for the teachers and for the students."

Jill Dinneen, a longtime kindergarten teacher from Juana Briones Elementary School, told the board that as a member of a committee that recommended the extended-day program, the value of that model was to break down classes into smaller groups which then alternate staying for the extra hours.

"Small groups are the way to get to students who need it the most," Dinneen said.

She also said she knew of two kindergarten teachers who left the district after full-day kindergarten was implemented at their site "because that program was too daunting to handle once they were on their own." Extra aides provided as support were pulled out of their classrooms after the first year, she said.

Emberling added that any conversation around full-day kindergarten must involve teachers. Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educator's Association and a kindergarten teacher, asked the board why teachers were not asked for any input on the list of budget proposals they discussed Tuesday.

"I would think you would want all of the stakeholders' information before you push recommendations," she said. "Teachers are the ones in the classrooms. They really know what programs are needed."

Board member Ken Dauber requested that when staff returns to the board with more final budget proposals, they provide information about the trade-offs of implementing full-day kindergarten versus other alternatives, such as increasing the district's preschool services.

President Melissa Baten Caswell also requested data from the existing full-day kindergarten programs at Palo Verde and Barron Park.

The board's conversation also frequently returned to the topic of opening a new secondary school, which was recently recommended, albeit preliminarily, by a subcommittee of the district's Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC). The secondary subcommittee has proposed that the district open an innovative middle and high school at Cubberley Community Center on Middlefield Road, as well as work to make needed changes at the existing secondary sites.

While there is clear excitement and support for a new secondary school on both the board and in the community — more than 20 parents and community members spoke in rousing support for the proposal at an Oct. 27 board meeting — Tuesday's budget discussion was a reminder of just how much it will cost the district.

Staff estimated it would cost somewhere between $65 million to $70 million to build a middle/high school at Cubberley. Operating costs for a middle school, based on existing schools from the 2015-16 year, is about $2.5 million, and for a high school, $3.6 million. The district will also lose $5.5 million in lease revenue from the Cubberley site if it chooses to build there, though it could potentially retain some revenue by allowing some space to be used at night by the city or community groups, for example.

Baten Caswell said the district will likely have to consider outside funding sources if it decides to open a new 6-12 school, even with higher-than-projected property tax revenue this year and a fresh influx of cash from a recent school parcel-tax measure. The district has a budget surplus of $7.6 million property-tax revenue and $2.3 million from Measure A, which voters overwhelmingly approved in May.

Trustee Camille Townsend said that she hopes the board and staff will not limit itself based on the budget, particularly when it comes to opening a new school.

"I've certainly heard enough from enough people recently that the board just doesn't dream big enough," she said. "I want to turn this around and say, 'I don't want to be limited in this conversation today by what's here.'"

Other board members stressed that they won't be able to fund everything proposed Tuesday night, but instead must make the best use of the dollars available to have a high and broad effect on students throughout the district.

"I love dreaming as much as anybody does, but I think that the budget exercise that we're engaged in is trying to figure out what is the highest, best use of the dollars that the community has given us," Dauber said.

Both Dauber and board member Terry Godfrey pointed to the absence of any immediate social-emotional proposals in the budget, particularly for the secondary level. A top program proposal is the creation of a joint Paly-Gunn committee that will spend about a year developing new social-emotional curriculum and a counseling model to potentially be implemented in the fall of 2017.

The district is estimating it would cost up to $50,000 to fund a professional facilitator to lead the proposed committee and up to $100,000 for the professional development necessary to design and implement new social-emotional curriculum.

Staff also estimated that implementing a weekly teacher-advisory counseling model at both Paly and Gunn would cost about $632,000.

Other proposals discussed Tuesday included more staffing to expand the district's new Advanced Authentic Research (AAR) program, which is currently serving 80 high school students in its pilot year; class-size reductions, particularly at the high schools; world-language instruction at elementary schools; new computer science curriculum to start at the middle-school level; and anticipated costs from a special-education program review currently underway in the district.

McGee said staff will return to the board in February with a prioritized, shorter list of budget proposals. Godfrey encouraged him to identify any efforts that the district wants to pursue this year that are one-time costs (rather than requiring ongoing funding) and to implement them sooner.

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11 people like this
Posted by Barron Park parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 4, 2015 at 11:04 am

Many worthy ideas here. But wealthy as Palo Alto is, we obviously can't afford them all. I especially like the idea of providing smaller class sizes in the high schools -- some advanced and AP classes have 35 students! That is crazy. Insufficient teacher & student interaction undoubted leads to stress.

I see overwhelming community support for reducing the size of our current middle schools and high schools, which will help all our kids. The reporter points to last week's meeting where a boatload of data was shared showing that our secondary schools are just too big.

Naturally, the big question is how do we afford new secondary schools, either middle or high or both? Is there a way to quickly determine how much private money can be raised, both for the construction costs as well as the ongoing operating costs? That seems to be a key next step, and it needs to be done quickly.

3 people like this
Posted by Tom
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 4, 2015 at 12:13 pm

At least there is no mention of carrying through on the bad idea of taking away Barron Park elementary school from the neighborhood and opening it to the whole town, getting rid of our kids there as collateral damage. Really awful idea. And it would dump a lot more traffic on our narrow streets. We are not a colony of Palo Alto that is here to be exploited.

7 people like this
Posted by Domad
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 4, 2015 at 12:15 pm

How about giving the teachers a raise or bonus? They work hard and don't make enough to live anywhere close to where they work.

3 people like this
Posted by Good
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2015 at 12:18 am

The district employees make a lot of money. They get paid for less than a full year's work, too. The superintendent makes $300,000 a year, with a $1.5 million interest free housing loan, a $750/month car allowance, and full bennies. Most of the assistant whatevers at the district office and school sites make more money than the governor of California. Teachers in PAUSD make far more than instructors at the local community colleges. Plus, they got raises on the front end not that long ago.

I agree that we should pay our teachers well, though. I'd rather see us review our administrator pay, and whether we need such expensive bureaucracy first.

13 people like this
Posted by Time for Townsend to go
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 5, 2015 at 7:06 am

The best evidence that Camille Townsend is not competent as a board member was her statement that she does not want the board to "limit itself based on the budget." According to Townsend, the board should be guided by "dreams" not by dollars.

OK, number 1, this was a budget meeting. Good if everyone understands what a budget is, what a budget meeting is before they are elected.

Number 2, everyone is limited based on a budget and it is almost insane for a public official to say that they don't think that they should be limited to a budget.

Dauber's response was great: ""I love dreaming as much as anybody does, but I think that the budget exercise that we're engaged in is trying to figure out what is the highest, best use of the dollars that the community has given us," Dauber said.

Please, more of him less of her.

Like this comment
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 5, 2015 at 7:25 am

"I see overwhelming community support for reducing the size of our current middle schools and high schools, which will help all our kids. The reporter points to last week's meeting where a boatload of data was shared showing that our secondary schools are just too big. "

I read the report carefully and frankly was very unimpressed by the analysis. There are flat out errors, as well as clear attempts to spin the numbers. They are using "size" as a silver bullet - in fact, as with most silver bullet solutions, we would spent a lot of time and money and end up where we are. Max just wants his "innovative" school.

The middle schools will shrink on their own anyway, as incoming elementary classes are far smaller than the outgoing 8th graders. The high schools will also start shrinking by the time anything new is built.

Far better in my view is to invest that money improving the schools that we have now. Better programs, better advisory, better pedagogy - not just new buildings and "special" schools.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 5, 2015 at 8:25 am

Are more homes still being built in Palo Alto?

In that case, the likelihood that there will be less students in PAUSD over the next 5 years is unlikely. Unless of course you can guarantee that seniors, single tech workers and ghost houses will be the norm in Palo Alto.

History has shown us that fluctuations in PAUSD go both ways.

Like this comment
Posted by Fred
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 5, 2015 at 11:04 am

@Resident, according to the EMAC report, Kindergarten enrollment has gone done the last 4 years, which hasn't happened in over 30 years. And that the number of home being built is way less than the last decade. And the birth rate in California is at an all-time low (lowest since the Great Depression).

The long term chart showed enrollment dropping by 50% during the 70s and the 80s - do you think housing shrank during that time?

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