Palo Alto school trustees approved about $3.4 million in budget cuts and took some proposals off the table for the 2017-18 school year on Wednesday, continuing to work through a monthslong process to address an ongoing tax shortfall.
The school board agreed that a list of 12 reductions they discussed at a previous meeting, as well as eight additional items, will be included in the 2017-18 budget, which has yet to be approved. (View a list of these 20 cuts at the bottom of this story.) The cuts come from district and site personnel, program adjustments and other buckets, like balancing elementary class size due to declining enrollment and a decrease in the district's per-student enrollment allocation down from $105 to $85 per student.
The board also decided against doing away with an elementary-level arts coordinator position after opposition from art teachers, parents and community members.
Board members discussed but did not yet find consensus on another staff recommendation: to require all classes to enroll at least 10 students, including academic planning classes for special-education students, and to balance the number of special-education students case managers have at each high school. (This would result in a savings of $250,000). There is currently an "imbalance" between caseloads at the two high schools, Superintendent Max McGee said, with case managers assigned to about nine to 10 students at Gunn High School compared to 15 to 16 students at Palo Alto High School. This is due to a higher number of co-taught classrooms, or classes with both a general and special-education teacher, at Gunn, staff said.
While the superintendent argued that there will be no negative impact on students, some board members questioned the value of making cuts that could affect special-needs students without tangible evidence for the contrary. Academic planning classes, for example, provide extra support to those students in areas like executive planning or communication.
"It seems to be a vital class," said board member Todd Collins. "Is getting the class size for that greater than 10 necessary? Is it useful? Is it imperative? I don't know. What impact will it have? I don't know."
Other trustees agreed, suggesting staff ask special-education teachers to come to the board's next budget discussion to share on-the-ground input about the potential impact of this decision.
The suggestion to implement a minimum number of students for all classes also revived debate over class size. Collins and Vice President Ken Dauber continued to advocate against cutting dollars the board previously approved to hire teachers to mitigate large classes at the middle and high schools.
Dauber said he would "press much harder on cuts in administrative staff in the district office before I would decide not to hire teachers."
McGee said, however, that the teachers are no longer needed at the middle schools, where a large population bubble has moved through — and onto the high schools — and principals have successfully brought class sizes down. Dauber suggested that if additional teachers or sections are not needed at the middle schools, the district should redirect those funds to the high schools, which expect to see enrollment increases as the bubble class moves through.
Middle and high school principals have also told district leadership, McGee said, that they would prefer to use this $375,000 to add more sections of teachers on special assignment to support teachers.
"They will contend that the teachers on special assignment will really impact instruction more than just a teacher to reduce class size," McGee said.
Collins framed smaller classes as a way to combat what he described as "one of the biggest issues in our school district": students reporting on surveys low levels of connectedness to adults at school. Board member Jennifer DiBrienza said the district has also committed to investments that could impact that, like implementing a districtwide social-emotional learning curriculum.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell urged her colleagues to consider the trade-offs between class size and other priorities, such as enrichment programs or counseling services. She also said she worries that the board is "using class size as a solution to a whole bunch of things that might have better solutions."
Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza suggested the board rely on what staff is saying about their need for class size reduction, but to tap district reserves if necessary to add additional sections when classes start this fall.
Board President Terry Godfrey suggested, and others agreed, that the board defer any decisions on class size until after the board's policy review committee drafts a formal class size policy, which it is set to do in June.
Wednesday's meeting also turned to a question on the school district's achievement gap: In light of a tighter budget, what is the most effective use of dollars to sustain forward progress on a troubling trend the district has committed itself to reversing?
In particular, trustees discussed the value of investing further in a new parent liaison program created to improve communication and engagement with low-income and minority parents, particularly for those whose first language is not English. Staff have proposed allocating $229,000 to replace part-time parent liaisons with five full-time people to serve the entire district. Staff have also recommended eliminating a new district-level equity coordinator, who was hired last year to oversee work to reduce the achievement gap.
Baten Caswell urged staff to bring back concrete rather than anecdotal data about the impact of the parent liaisons.
The board will continue discussing the 2017-18 budget at a special meeting on Thursday, May 11, 8-10 a.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave.
Budget cuts the school board approved by a unanimous vote on May 3:
- Two technology management positions: $399,974
- Two clerical positions: $216,643
- Consolidate the associate superintendent and chief student services officer position to new high school chief academic officer position: $117,828
- Reduce maintenance, operations and transportation budgets: $75,000
- Increase rates and district office's share from school facility rentals: $150,000
- Fund Advanced Authentic Research program through state grant: $150,000
- Adjust budget for Alta Vista High School to anticipated, lower number of referrals: $150,000
- Reduce department conference, travel expenses by half: $75,000
- Reduce music positions due to declining enrollment: $37,500
- Eliminate high school volunteer coordinators: $22,000
- Reassign the equivalent of three full-time teachers on special assignment: $375,000
- Eliminate principal on special assignment position: $219,105
- Eliminate allocation for elementary field trip transportation: $100,000
- Consolidate middle school English learners program: $75,000
- Cut equivalent of one full-time school psychologist: $150,000
- Consolidate high-school clerical positions: $136,000
- Balance elementary class size due to declining enrollment: $250,000
- Consolidate principal of Adult School and Education Options: $128,220
- Reduce per-student enrollment allocation by $20 (from $105 to $85): $245,000