Photo by Joe Hu, Town Crier
Los Altos school officials face hard choices in wake of $4.4 million deficit
he dust has settled and now the dirty work begins.The Los Altos School District Board of Trustees at its May 6 meeting approved its Budget Review Committee's recommendations for cutting $4.4 million from the district budget to offset the projected deficit for the coming school year.
The board is now grappling with the grim reality that teachers, janitors, librarians and other employees are losing their jobs; school programs will be cut; class sizes are going to increase; and a seventh elementary school will not open.
At the root of the problem is the lack of state funding.
In 1972, the state imposed revenue limits on school districts, or a cap or general fund revenue per student. The Los Altos School District is a revenue limit district, according to Randy Kenyon, assistant superintendent of business services. The revenue limit was based on the amount of funding that voters within each school district had authorized through previous tax elections.
A key factor hurting the district now is the method the state employs to determine how much money to allocate to each district. The 1976 California Supreme Court decision, Serrano v. Priest, ruled that schools should spend money at the same level to ensure equal educational opportunity for students statewide.
"The state set our revenue limit based on the taxing level in the district prior to 1972 and funds an annual inflationary increase," Kenyon said. "I don't exactly know how the district compared with all other districts in the state in 1972. My guess is that it was below the state average and thus received larger annual inflation increases than districts above the state average. We certainly are below the state average now and have been in recent years."
According to the state, to achieve equality of funding among schools, the state provided the annual inflationary increase at higher levels for low spending districts and lower inflationary increases for higher spending districts.
"The revenue limit is a per student amount of approximately $4,500 for 2002-03, that is multiplied by the number of students. For us the total amount is (between) $17 million and $18 million," Kenyon said.
Another factor that affects the district's state funding is the 1978 passage of Proposition 13. Prop. 13 amended the state constitution to limit the level of local general purpose property tax to 1 percent of the full cash value of the property. Schools could no longer raise funds by raising local tax rates and became more dependent on state funding.
About 73 percent of the Los Altos district's funding comes from the state which faces a projected deficit of $22 billion, according to Kenyon. When the state economy suffers, schools receive lower cost-of-living adjustments or inflation increases, he added.
According to the district, it spends $7,300 per student.
"That's pretty close to the national average and higher than the California state average," Kenyon said. "The reason it's higher than the state average is that we have the parcel tax and Los Altos Educational Foundation revenues to give us more wherewithal than just what the state gives us."
The high quality of the school districts in the Los Altos area has long attracted new home-buyers. While rising property taxes bring additional revenue to the city, the same isn't true for the districts.
"For every dollar that local property taxes increase, because of the increase in the value of homes in town, the state reduces the amount of aid it gives the district by exactly the same amount," said Dick Hasenpflug. "Thus, the recent increases in local property values have neither helped nor hurt the district."
The district offset its funding inequity in the past with a parcel tax, which has been in place since 1989, currently set at $264 per parcel annually.
Hasenpflug recently headed the Measure A campaign for a $333 parcel tax increase, which failed to pass by a two-thirds majority vote in a special election April 9. Had the tax passed, it would have garnered $4 million in revenue for the district, according to Kenyon. The district could put another parcel tax increase before voters as early as this November.
Teachers and class size
With no cut being minor, all will have an effect. One of the biggest concerns for parents, teachers and the community is the elimination of 38 teaching positions at the elementary school level and an equivalent of 9.4 full-time teaching positions at the junior high level. This would "save" $1,980,000 but result in classes with 30-34 students per teacher at every grade level, K-8.
"Teachers understand that we are facing a difficult year," said Laura Bence, teacher and president of the Los Altos Teachers' Association. "We are looking at larger class sizes, less money from the state and double out-of-pocket money for medical expenses. We still don't know what the numbers are going to be in terms of teachers losing their jobs, because we don't know what is being funded yet."
The state budget will be finalized July 1. Only then will district officials really know how much money they will receive for the general budget and if teachers will receive a 2 percent cost-of-living increase.
"If we receive less than 2 percent of a cost-of-living increase from the state there is no way that we can have a salary increase next year," Bence said. "Our salaries are competitive, but our benefits are a top draw, especially for new teachers. If we lose that, how are we going to keep new teachers who will be looking at other districts who have better offers?"
LASD Board not to open Covington School
Not opening school
Another big-ticket item is not operating a seventh elementary school. Discussion has been centering on Covington elementary, currently being renovated and slated to open in August.
The board discussed the implementation of the budget cuts, including planning for operating only six elementary schools and determining which school would not be open for the 2002-03 school year at its May 13 meeting, after the Town Crier went to press. Look for an update on our Web site at www.losaltosonline.com. [From online editor: see sidebar].
By not operating a seventh school, the district could save $350,000 in operational costs, said Superintendent Marge Gratiot. If the district doesn't open Covington, the question of utilization of the newly renovated campus arises. The district's funding for construction does not come out of its general budget, but from a separate bond measure passed in 1998.
The decision to use Covington as a camp school was discussed at the May 13 meeting, after the Town Crier went to press.
One problem with leaving any campus vacant is that it could be vunerable for a possible takeover by a newly formed charter school. "State law says if you have an unused campus, a charter school that is in your district's boundaries could use it; if you are trying to rent it out, a charter school has priority over that space," Gratiot said. "Camp schools are not available since they are an adjunct campus."
A charter school would not have to pay rent to the district.
"With three schools under construction, you have to look at how complete and finished the sites would be at the time you would need them," Gratiot said. "If, for example, Springer School moved into Covington as a camp school, Springer staff, kids and child care would all move together."
The seventh-school decision leaves key staffers in a state of flux. Newly appointed Covington Principal Linda Eckols may stay at Loyola, but the board has yet to make a decision.
Dave McNulty, director of facilities construction for the district, was set to replace Eckols as principal at Loyola next year.
There will be a vacancy for a principal at Bullis-Purissima School because current principal Patricia Boettcher is scheduled to replace the retiring Dick Liewer as assistant superintendent of curriculum. If Covington is not reopened, either Eckols or McNulty would fill Boettcher's position, with the other serving as Loyola's principal, Gratiot said.
The district and the community are looking to parents, parent-teachers' associations, the Los Altos Educational Foundation and Save Our Staff, a newly formed fund-raising group, to see if they can help defray some of the $4.4 million tab.
Decisions have yet to be made as to what the parent-teacher associations will fund for the district in the 2002-03 school year.
"In anticipation of the cuts, we scheduled a meeting of all the outgoing and incoming PTA presidents for all the Los Altos School District schools May 15 to discuss how we can best support the district and every child's education," said Lois Sangster, co-president of the Los Altos-Mountain View PTA Council.
"It would be premature for me to say what form that support would take before the discussion, but the PTAs have a long history of doing what is necessary in a variety of ways, only one of which is monetary," said Sangster
Los Altos Educational Foundation
At the May 6 meeting, Los Altos Educational Foundation President Rae Lee Hansen presented their $1.2 million commitment toward enrichment programs and class-size reductions for 2002-03.
"The reality is that most of us believe that no private fund-raising effort can replace a broad-based community parcel tax," Hansen said. "Public schools need community support of their programs. It's very real. We believe all of us together can raise the tide of education for all students; that's what we want."
For the first time, LAEF will need to fund 100 percent of the enrichment programs and class-size reduction costs. LAEF is planning to fund technology aides, physical education minus the kindergarten level, music instruction, art docents, staffing to keep libraries open and a sixth period for electives at the junior highs.
LAEF grants will also fund the retention of 19 credentialed teachers and 15 other teaching staff for the 2002-03 school year.
LAEF's suggested donation for this year is $600 per student.
"We all need to be sensitive when asking for money. Many people have lost their jobs and these tough economic times are real," Hansen said. "We hope families can participate at any level that is appropriate for their family while being part of the solution."
Donations can be sent to LAEF: P.O. Box 98, Los Altos 94023. For more information, logon to the LAEF Web site at www.laefonline.org.
Save Our Staff
Save Our Staff, another non-profit foundation, is in the process of raising funds for the Los Altos School District. SOS, a group of concerned parents, teachers and community members, is separate from, and does not want to compete with, the fund-raising efforts of the district's PTAs and LAEF. SOS's goal is to raise enough funds to retain all teachers and keep a seventh period in the junior highs. The group also wants to keep class sizes small in grades one to three and contribute toward maintaining class sizes in all the other grades.
"Parents are aware that this is not only about large class sizes. It is also about retaining the wonderful teaching staff the LASD has," said SOS Chairwoman Maria Dickerson. "The educational program in the district is implemented by very skilled and dedicated teachers. Loss of these teachers cannot be compensated by simply hiring new teachers a year from now." SOS is suggesting a donation of $1,000 per family in the district. Send tax-deductible donations to the Los Altos Community Foundation-Save Our Staff, 183 Hillview Ave., Los Altos 94022. Make checks payable to Save Our Staff-LACF.
By Sara Ballenger
The Los Altos School District's Board of Trustee's voted at its May 13 meeting, after the Town Crier went to press for its May 15 issue, to delay the opening of Covington School for one year. The district decided that Springer School, which currently has 637 students will go to the Covington campus as a "camp school," or temporary campus for one year, leaving the Blach Camp School unoccupied. It is not yet clear wether the district will leave the camp school vacant or attempt to rent it out for one year. Almond School will proceed to the Egan camp school as scheduled. Look for a complete story in our May 22 issue.
As money from other sources becomes available, the district will restore parts of its educational program. The board finalized its restoration list at its Monday meeting. Results were not available due to the Town Crier's Monday night deadline. However, Gratiot presented her restoration recommendations in priority order at the May 6 meeting. Gratiot's recommendations are as follows:
Add teachers to reduce combination classes at $225,000;
Restore class size reduction (CSR) in grade one at $127,000;
Restore CSR in grade two at $109,200;
Restore CSR in grade three at $194,150;
Restore CSR in kindergarten $420,000;
Further reduce upper grade class size at $200,000;
Total of full restoration: $1,275,550.
Restoration will depend on fund-raising efforts from the community and funding. The school district community has to wait and see if the community can once again step-up to the plate and help ensure the educational excellence of one of the top districts in the state.