Amid uncertainty, LASD passes ‘placeholder’ budget

Los Altos School District
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
The Los Altos School District has voted to approve a budget for next school year.

The Los Altos School District has approved a budget for next school year, but the coronavirus pandemic means that much is still subject to change.

The district is waiting for the state to finalize its budget, to receive more information about if and how schools will be allowed to reopen in the fall, and to learn what property tax revenue will ultimately be.

“This is basically a status-quo, placeholder budget until we figure those things out,” Board of Trustees president Bryan Johnson said at a June 8 meeting.

The board unanimously voted at the meeting to approve the budget. However, Associate Superintendent of Business Services Randy Kenyon said he expects the district will adjust the budget in the fall, once more information is known.

“For sure, we’re going to make some adjustments. I bet we’ll make adjustments all during the year,” Kenyon said. “The longer the pandemic goes on, the deeper and the wider the potential economic impact could be.”

Despite the uncertainty, Kenyon said his concern isn’t next school year, so much as the following years. School districts often feel the impact of a recession about a year after commercial businesses, because of the time it takes to impact tax revenue.

The budget assumes 5% property tax growth for next school year, but 0% growth in the two subsequent years. Kenyon said he is fairly confident in the 5% figure, though it could be impacted if enough people aren’t able to pay their property taxes. In the following years, Kenyon said property tax revenue could even decline, as happened during the Great Recession.

The district is budgeting for a 10% drop in unrestricted money from the state next school year, in line with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal. Because the district is largely funded by local tax revenue, the state funding cut only works out to a $70,000 drop in revenue.

However, negotiations between Newsom and the State Legislature are ongoing. It’s possible that state funding cuts could be deeper, Kenyon said, but also possible that schools are largely spared.

Pandemic precautions

In next year’s budget, the district has set aside money to address some likely pandemic-related costs. Roughly $300,000 extra is included in the technology budget to accommodate remote learning, about $50,000 is added to the food service budget to provide more students with free meals and approximately $100,000 more is set aside for cleaning costs.

According to Kenyon, the true cost may end up being higher, but potential federal or state reimbursements also haven’t yet been factored into the budget.

Enrollment is expected to continue to drop next year, from 3,996 to 3,929 students. That drop will correspond to five fewer teachers, reduced through attrition rather than layoffs.

The budget doesn’t include any salary increases, beyond the automatic raises teachers receive for the length of their employment.

The district’s reserves are set to remain roughly flat, dropping slightly from 7.96% to 7.92%. Before the pandemic hit, Kenyon said the board had been looking to increase reserves in preparation for a potential future recession. That’s more difficult now, Kenyon said, but in the fall the district may look for ways to trim spending and increase savings.

The sooner cuts are made, the better off the district will ultimately be, Kenyon said. At the same time, he added that it isn’t yet clear what the long-term impact of the pandemic will be.

“There’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “That’s why we’re going to be adjusting the budget a couple of months from now.”

The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District approved its budget at a Monday meeting. For details, check online and see next week’s paper.

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