As the Palo Alto school district continues to grapple with a budget shortfall, the board of education on Thursday directed staff to plan for just under $1 million in ongoing additions, including to fund mental health services and provide additional behavioral support to the elementary schools.
The board allocated $140,000 for high school advisory programs, the bulk of which will go to support the rollout of Gunn High School's new Titan Connect program, which will pair students with a teacher-mentor for their four years of high school.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell voiced concern about the funding inequity this could create between the two high schools, and her colleagues agreed to review the program in a year to make sure more dollars shouldn't be going to Palo Alto High School (which has long had an advisory program).
Board members also approved $229,000 listed for the district's new parent liaison program, which aims to strengthen connection and communication between minority, Spanish-speaking and low-income families and their schools, but agreed that that dollar amount should be invested wherever it is most effective to support that population.
Vice President Ken Dauber said he would like to prioritize investing in programs or services that have a demonstrable impact on these students' educational achievement, such as tutoring. He asked staff to return with a proposal for how $25,000 of the total $229,000 could be best spent on tutoring support for minority and low-income students.
And although the board allocated $370,000 for counseling services at the middle and high schools, to be provided by a new nonprofit starting this fall, some expressed discomfort with the amount of the new contract. This year, the district paid $100,000 to longtime counseling provider Adolescent Counseling Services to serve the five campuses. Staff have recommended the district contract starting this fall with Counseling and Support Services for Youth (CASSY), which proposed a budget of $467,000.
Baten Caswell said she was "surprised" by the budget amount, and concerned that the selection of a new provider was made without board input.
"Is there a way to adjust, not necessarily our needs but our model so we don't need to spend $370,000?" she asked.
She and President Terry Godfrey suggested a budget closer to $300,000 as reasonable given the district's budget constraints.
Superintendent Max McGee said he would seek a detailed explanation from CASSY for "what we are getting for that money" and return to the board with more information.
The board also allocated $63,000 for an additional behavioral specialist to serve the elementary schools, which have reportedly seen a spike in serious behavioral incidents this year. At a May 3 budget meeting, Barron Park Elementary School Principal Anne Brown and Fairmeadow Elementary School Principal Grant Althouse requested $308,000 to hire four additional behavioral specialists. Major school and classroom disruptions — from students throwing desks and chairs to scratching, biting and hitting other students or staff — have been so serious they require entire classrooms to be "evacuated," the principals told the board on May 3. With at least two incidents a day across all 12 elementary schools, two existing behavioral coaches are spending their time "putting out fires," Brown said.
"They're not having time to work on (students' behavioral) plans, to support the teachers, to support the students, to support psychologists and principals and other staff members," she said. "They're forced to be in a reactive stance rather than proactive."
The board also directed staff to use reserve funds to pay for $175,000 in additional middle and high school teachers to mitigate large class sizes and to designate $150,000 to support subsidized childcare provided by Palo Alto Community Child Care as an ongoing rather than one-time expense.
Last week, the board approved about $3.4 million in budget cuts. Other proposed reductions remain on the table, as well as one-time program additions.
Below are the nine ongoing program additions the board approved on Thursday, May 11:
• Parent liaisons ($229,000)
• High school advisory programs ($140,000)
• Legal specialist time increase ($60,000)
• Increase work days and pay range for high school mental health specialists ($23,000)
• Increase pay for mental health therapists ($39,000)
• Northwest Evaluation Association standardized test assessments ($20,000)
• Reclassify a nurse clinician position ($27,000)
• Counseling services for secondary schools ($370,000)
• Elementary schools behavioral support ($63,000)