Local school districts faced big unknowns when they drafted their annual budgets last spring, with the pandemic shuttering school campuses and the specter of education funding cuts looming as the state projected a budget crunch.
It turns out, a year can make a big difference. The Los Altos School District and Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District boards both recently approved budgets for the upcoming school year that show a much sunnier outlook.
“When we were doing the budget a year ago, there was a lot of uncertainty. State finances were very shaky,” said Randy Kenyon, LASD’s assistant superintendent of business services. “What happened was everything got better in a hurry. The economy didn’t collapse, the stock market has gotten much better, state revenues are up. When you contrast this year to last year, it’s just a tremendous difference.”
Mike Mathiesen, MVLA associate superintendent of business services, similarly said his district’s financial position looks solid.
“It’s a healthy budget, it’s a positive budget,” Mathiesen said. “It’s one where we’re able to maintain all of our programs and add some, and we’re adding staffing to support our students.”
With property-tax revenue expected to continue growing, plus one-time state and federal COVID-19 relief dollars, MVLA is looking at a projected budget surplus of roughly $2.4 million.
The district expects revenue to grow 5.4%. That includes a 6% estimated increase in secured property-tax revenue, which makes up the majority of the district’s funding.
School districts, including MVLA, are also receiving money from the state and federal governments to help offset pandemic expenses. MVLA is budgeting roughly $4.5 million in relief funds next school year, which is on top of other relief funds budgeted in the prior 2020-2021 school year.
The influx of money is going toward specific COVID expenses, like added support for students, rather than to pay for existing expenses, Mathiesen said.
“For most of it, it’s outside the basic budget,” he said. “It’s new money coming in, but then (it’s being spent on) new program offerings or enhancements.”
The budget assumes 4,605 students next school year, up from 4,561 last year. Amid the pandemic, the district saw its enrollment stay largely flat last school year, when it had been expecting an increase of approximately 100 students, according to Mathiesen. Although the district is estimating 4,605 students in the fall, uncertainty remains about how many students who left during the pandemic will return.
“We’re going to have to wait and see how this settles itself out with enrollment,” Mathiesen said. “Did we lose students, and if so, why? And do they come back? Did they move? Did they just go to a different learning environment?”
At the beginning of June, the MVLA board approved a 4.25% raise for teachers and staff that retroactively applies to last school year, plus a 2% one-time lump-sum payment.
The 2021-2022 budget incorporates the new salary schedule with the 4.25% raise from last school year. Because the district typically negotiates with its unions retroactively for the current school year, no new increase is yet budgeted for 2021-2022.
After a year of pandemic uncertainty, LASD’s budget for next school year shows the district “in a much better financial position than we’ve been in a long time,” Kenyon said.
The district saw its student population drop by more than 400 during the pandemic last school year. Because LASD is largely funded with local property taxes, which have continued to increase, rather than based on its population, the drop actually put the district in a more secure financial position.
“We’ve had declining enrollment, so we’ve had a need for lower staffing, while we have more money coming in,” Kenyon said. “So, on a per-student basis, we’re better off.”
Enrollment dropped from 3,996 to 3,574 last school year. That “sudden and somewhat unexpected drop” means the district had more teachers than needed and could offer smaller class sizes during the pandemic, Kenyon said. The district is estimating enrollment will grow to 3,669 next school year, still below pre-pandemic levels.
That projection is based on a combination of factors, Kenyon said, including a survey of families who left during the pandemic, information about new housing in Mountain View and the longer-term decline in the area’s birth rate. However, questions still remain about the longer-term effect of the pandemic on the district’s student body.
“We’re wondering what’s going to happen with enrollment. Will we start to have a return to the pre-pandemic enrollments we had? Because we had a drop of, like, 400 kids – 10% of our enrollment dropped off in one year,” Kenyon said. “Any big spike in enrollment will cause an increase in cost, but we’re expecting it to be a … fairly flat, gradual increase, but not a huge spike of any kind.”
With 3,669 students projected for next school year, the district is planning to employ six fewer teachers, which will be achieved through retirements and attrition, not layoffs, Kenyon said.
Teachers and staff will see a 7% raise next school year, on top of a 2% raise last year. The district had originally planned a 2% raise for next school year but approved an additional 5% at a meeting last week.
On the revenue side, the district is projecting a 4% increase in property taxes next school year, which Kenyon called a “realistic but still conservative” estimate. LASD, like MVLA, has also received state and federal COVID relief funding. That revenue was included in last school year’s budget, Kenyon said, but some of it will be carried over and spent in the coming year.