Despite the ongoing efforts of community members and administrators alike, the Los Altos School District still finds itself $4.5 million in the hole.
These are hard times for the venerable K-8 district, the chief draw for many residents to move to Los Altos in the first place. The district’s $193 parcel tax proposed for the May 3 ballot is projected to make up only $2.3 million of that $4.5 million deficit. The district actually needs a tax well over $300, but polling numbers predicted residents would not support that amount.
Some fixes are beyond the district’s control. Our state government is surely a culprit, handcuffing districts with restrictive mandates while decreasing funding year after year.
Meanwhile, the district is responsible for lifetime health benefits promised to employees hired prior to 1989 – 180 retirees, 40 current teachers. The district last year had to deposit $1 million into retirement benefits as a result of the old policy.
It must be stated emphatically that the Los Altos School District is doing things right when it comes to financial management. It has one of the leanest administrations in the county and one of the largest percentages of funds going straight to the classrooms. Lost revenues are key to the current conditions. Three years ago, the district switched its funding model to a basic-aid district ($120 per student from the state, but an effective moneymaker in affluent areas because districts can benefit directly from property taxes). But the timing couldn’t have been worse – property taxes flatlined during the recession and the expected funding didn’t materialize.
So what to do? We can best control what we do locally, thus the May 3 parcel-tax request. But the district still has choices, hard as they may be, with the funding it does have.
District teachers need to swallow hard and agree to further concessionsÂ to avoid layoffs and dramatic increases in class sizes. Most notably, start with a reduction in health-care benefits – the district currently carries 95 percent of the cost. And teachers have said they want to bargain to lighten the district’s load. We’ll see what happens.
Locally as well as statewide, districts lose promising young teachers every year because the older, veteran teachers have tenure. The average salaries are higher in the Los Altos School District, because a large proportion of the teachers have been teaching in the district for a long time.
The state needs to take a lesson from Madison, Wis., overcome the protests of the teachers’ unions and change to salaries based on performance instead of seniority. With all due respect to the hard job teachers face, job performance should be evaluated year by year, like the rest of us. We think the change would result not only in better budget control, but also in a better education for our students, because the districts would retain the best and constantly improving teachers.
Changes are needed. The status quo is no longer an option.