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Zoe Morgan/Town Crier File Photo Montclaire Elementary School in Los Altos reopened last month, above. Its district faces substantial financial challenges.

The Cupertino Union School District will once again consider permanently closing schools, along with a host of other impactful cuts, after voters rejected a parcel-tax proposal from the district last week.

Measure A would have levied a $398 annual tax on each parcel of land within CUSD’s boundaries, raising an estimated $14 million annually for the cash-strapped district. It needed two-thirds approval to pass but received only 59.34% support, as of the ballots counted by Monday afternoon (May 10) – more than 7 percentage points shy of the required margin.

“I’m certainly disappointed and I’m also concerned about (CUSD’s) financial future,” CUSD Board of Education President Jerry Liu said. “I think we’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”

The CUSD Board of Education placed the parcel tax before voters in an attempt to raise revenue to address long-running financial challenges. The district has faced declining enrollment and repeated budget cuts in recent years, and last fall the board considered closing multiple schools to save money.

That prospect met with strong opposition from parents, who turned out to board meetings in large numbers, signed petitions and organized protests. Board members ultimately decided to put the parcel tax on the ballot, saying that if it were approved, schools wouldn’t be shut down to save money, though they left the door open to closures for other reasons, such as declining enrollment.

Now that voters have shot down the tax, the board is going to once again consider a whole host of budget cuts, including school closures, Liu said. The district already has a list of potential cost-cutting measures. Beyond shutting down schools, options include increasing class sizes, having one principal cover multiple schools, furlough days and eliminating librarians.

“I know that the question on everybody’s mind is: Are we going to close schools? It’s back on the table – and nothing is off the table right now,” Liu said.

As for the likelihood that schools are closed permanently, he said the board will first need to take a close look at the district’s current financial situation in the coming weeks. The board plans to review its options at a May 20 meeting, and Superintendent Stacy Yao said it’s also possible a special meeting could be called earlier.

Yao called Measure A’s failure a “setback” for CUSD, but added the district will regroup and find a path forward. Although the focus will be on providing the best possible education, she acknowledged the likely cuts will impact students.

“It’s going to (have an) effect throughout the entire district,” Yao said. “It’s not going to be an impact on one or two schools – it’s really is a districtwide impact.”

According to Liu, it’s going to be about making tradeoffs and choosing the least bad option from a series of unpalatable choices. At the same time, he said the district has an obligation to follow the will of the voters.

“The voters have told us what they’d like to see – and it’s our job to work within the parameters of what the voters tell us, which is at this point no new revenue,” he said.

Weighing options

Some of the cuts could happen as early as next school year. Options such as furlough days, not filling vacant positions and having a district-level administrator also work part-time as a principal could all be implemented this fall, Yao said. A school could even theoretically be closed for next school year, she said, with the staff and teachers shifting to other campuses.

Measure A’s failure comes just over a year after the district tried unsuccessfully to pass a different parcel tax. Measure O, which voters rejected in March 2020, would have levied a $125 tax per parcel. It failed by a virtually identical margin to Measure A last week, receiving 59.71% support, which is below the required two-thirds.

The district knew putting another measure on the ballot would be costly, estimating it could total approximately $1 million, and some board members publicly questioned whether it was likely to pass. The cost of running an election is generally split among the measures on the ballot, and Measure A the only item up for a vote last week.

Despite the cost and risk of failure, the board voted unanimously in January to place the parcel tax before voters, saying they wanted to give the community a final chance to support the district before moving ahead with school closures. Liu said last week he personally feels school closures are a “monumental enough decision” to justify going back to voters.

“It’s serious enough that in my mind, it’s worth checking with the voters on this, because once you close a campus, it’s going to be hard to bring it back,” he said.

As for why Measure A failed, both Liu and Yao said it would take time to analyze the causes. However, Liu said one factor may be dissatisfaction with the district’s school reopening plan.

Some parents have criticized CUSD for keeping schools closed for over a year – campuses reopened last month – and there is an active recall effort against Lori Cunningham, who was board president last year.

Despite Measure A’s failure, Liu said he believes there’s increased recognition of the district’s financial situation, and one of the takeaways is the need for “better communication and engagement” on the district’s part.

“We shouldn’t be talking to the community only when we need help,” he said. “It’s something that should be a regular part of what we do.”