In many ways, the trustees urged staff to think more creatively in coming up with additional savings. Board member Todd Collins brought his own list of possible reductions, from reallocating reserve funds designated for opening a new elementary school into the operating fund to rolling back automatic raises given to senior managers and administrators. President Terry Godfrey asked staff to be more "forward-looking" when it comes to forecasting the single largest item in the district's budget — teacher compensation — in terms of what other districts are paying their teachers. Melissa Baten Caswell reiterated a request for the district to find ways to be more operationally effective.
Board member Ken Dauber said: "I think we are not yet there in terms of demonstrating to the community, really, that we have cut away from the classroom sufficiently so that the next right move is to cut into the educational mission of the district."
On the staff proposals, board members agreed that some are low-hanging fruit that they support, such as cutting back on weekend landscaping or reducing the district's contract with a local continuation high school to the actual number of seats needed, for example. Others, however, cut too close to the classroom for some board members' comfort.
Dauber said he opposed a proposal to not hire three additional teachers to help reduce class sizes at the high schools, which would save the district $375,000. Collins urged the creation of a formal class-size policy that would guide such decisions, rather than making incremental budget-driven changes.
Dauber also said he would not support a reduction in the district's contracts with Asian Americans for Community Involvement and Stanford University to provide counseling services to students and families. (The reduction would retain these services only at the district's high schools.)
Caswell asked staff to provide more information on where these services fit in with the district's other on-campus counseling and psychological-support programs.
Board member Jennifer DiBrienza, a former teacher, said she was most concerned about a proposal to reduce the number of teachers on special assignments (TOSA) as well as to cut stipends for instructional supervisors, or department leads, at schools. Staff argued on Tuesday that these teacher-leadership positions are "essential" to the mission of the district — they drive professional development, guide implementation of new textbooks and standards, serve as instructional models for teachers in classrooms and are pushing forward ambitious districtwide goals, like increasing consistency among grading practices, homework and curriculum.
"These are things that appear to be administrative and yet they are very close to the classroom," DiBrienza said of the TOSA and instructional supervisor positions.
And while Dauber and Collins pressed for more administrative cuts overall — Dauber said he expected to see about $2 or $2.5 million in reductions at the district office, about double what was proposed Tuesday — DiBrienza echoed staff concerns about the harm this could have. On Tuesday, Superintendent Max McGee recommended keeping $952,000 out of $1.1 million in proposed district-office cuts to avoid a point where "our infrastructure would start to crumble."
"We need to listen to the professionals," DiBrienza said. "I am really concerned we are near that tipping point, and I want to make sure we don't cross over the tipping point."
Caswell said it was difficult for her to make a "value judgment" about the amount of administrative cuts without more detailed explanation of their specific consequences.
Board members' other suggestions for savings included reviewing clerical positions, trimming a budget for conference travel expenses and using reserves for one-time costs, such as managing compliance with a federal Office for Civil Rights resolution agreement. Collins also floated proposals to find programs and activities that could possibly be consolidated with those of the county or other school districts; to consider consolidating elementary schools, given declining enrollment; and to roll back full-day kindergarten, which was launched this fall at all elementary schools.
"We need to dig deeper," Collins said. "We're still finding things. It's not surprising because it takes a long time to change your thinking. ... That's why we have these meetings — to challenge our thinking, to challenge staff's thinking, to hear from the community and really try to think out of the box a little bit."
Staff will bring budget recommendations to the board for further discussion in late April. The board will also have to weigh potential cuts against an estimated $1.6 million addition in costs of new programs and other efforts.
The district plans to schedule a public forum to solicit further feedback on the 2017-18 budget in the next few weeks.
TALK ABOUT IT
Which programs and positions should the Palo Atlo school district keep, and which could it cut, for the upcoming school year? Share your ideas on Town Square, the community discussion forum, at PaloAltoOnline.com/square.
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