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June 02, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Portola Valley schools connect dots to set budget priorities Portola Valley schools connect dots to set budget priorities (June 02, 2004)

By Marjorie Mader
Almanac Staff Writer

The Portola Valley School District combined a quick course in "School Finance 101" at four meetings last month with a hands-on "Dot Exercise" to learn what parents, teachers, staff and community members value as their budget priorities for the 2004-05 school year.

In a departure from the past, sometimes divisive, budget discussions, each participant was given 15 black dots, each with a face value of $10,000. Participants then had to decide how they would spend $150,000. They placed the dots on sheets of butcher paper, posting around the meeting room, each listing a specific item, such as K-3 science, small class sizes, and salary raises for teachers.

The $150,000 represents the discretionary dollars left in the district's proposed $8.3 million operating budget for next year after covering the basic expenses of running the district, including personnel costs.

At the board May 19 meeting, Superintendent Anne Campbell reported on the tally of the 1,194 black dots, which reflected differing community and staff priorities.

Top community priorities in order went to: math "differentiation of instruction" -- using different methods of instruction to suit different students; restoring funds for K-3 science; hiring someone who would serve as a "champion" for character education; restoring the specialist's time that was reduced from grade 4/5 science; and restoring the time reduced for instructional assistants for grades K-5.

The combined staff at Ormondale and Corte Madera schools voted with their dots for the following top priorities: salary increases; restoration of K-3 instructional assistants; a "champion" for character education; funds for K-3 art; and office support at Corte Madera.

The exercise demonstrates the challenge in constructing a budget, said Superintendent Campbell. "There may be conflicting, deeply held views about how dollars should be allocated," she said. One of the dilemmas confronting a board as it builds a budget, she said, is seeking a balance between enhancing, maintaining or restoring programs while simultaneously offering competitive salaries to retain and hire the best staff.

The board established principles to guide it in the budget process, and decided it would be an open process with input from a range of people in the community and on the staff. Among the principles: sustained long-term fiscal stability; competitive staff compensation; alignment of funds with the district's mission statement and logistical plans; spending that is "equitable and appropriate" per student across grade levels; no "one-time dollars" used to fund ongoing expenditures.

The school board makes the final decision.

Teachers comment

"This feels like the first time that we've really been meaningfully asked for input," said teacher Elaine Winer.

Teacher Jenny Lebsack supported restoring funds for instructional aids because they allow teachers to use different learning strategies for students.

Donna Kasprowicz noted the high cost of living on the Peninsula.

Karen Reis expressed her surprise that on the community list of top priorities, there were no dots for teacher salary increases.

Several teachers said that parents might not understand how Ormondale teachers had worked hard to integrate art and science into the classroom program after the specialists in these area were not rehired this year.

"This has been a fascinating process," said board President Deborah Rappaport. "We love getting e-mails," she added, urging community members and staff to continue sending them to


** Anne Campbell, superintendent of the Portola Valley School District, will present her budget recommendations at the board meeting on Tuesday, June 8, starting at 7 p.m. in Meeting Room 1001 at Corte Madera School.

** At the June 23 board meeting, the proposed budget will be scheduled for a public hearing and adoption.

** A list of staff and community budget priorities is available at the district office, 4575 Alpine Road, Portola Valley.

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