Portola Valley schools: $2 million in budget cuts


In the face of an unexpected fiscal crisis that came to light in April, Portola Valley school district officials are proposing a budget for the next fiscal year that cuts $2.1 million in spending, eliminates programs such as summer school and K-5 Spanish, increases class size at several grade levels, and has no reserves.

Even with these severe measures, the Portola Valley School District would end the 2012-13 school year with a balance of only $46,871, according to a report reviewed by the school board and jittery parents, teachers and other staff during a June 6 board meeting.

The proposed budget will come back to the school board at its June 20 meeting. A final budget must be approved by the end of June.

Meanwhile, the San Mateo County Board of Education on June 6 unanimously approved a $300,000 bridge loan to the school district -- money that could be tapped if the district's cash runs out before June 30.

The loan must be paid back by September 30. Interest will be at the rate the money would have earned on deposit with the county treasurer's office, which changes from month to month but has been running at about 1 percent, according to Anne Campbell, the county superintendent of schools.

Board members were already struggling to address a projected deficit of about $854,000 for the next school year when auditors informed them in late April of more fiscal uncertainty due to bookkeeping irregularities and the possible misappropriation of funds during the tenure of Tim Hanretty as superintendent.

Mr. Hanretty resigned in January after the county District Attorney's Office launched an investigation into alleged misdeeds stemming from his earlier work with the Woodside Elementary School District.

Several community meetings have been held to address the fiscal crisis, but understanding the magnitude of the problem has been a slow process, with figures changing frequently as auditors "keep finding things buried under rocks," according to Mark Bonnett, the district's interim finance official.

The latest estimates are that the district will end this fiscal year on June 30 with a $1.65 million deficit. With only $11.4 million in revenue, the district is expected to spend $13.08 million this fiscal year, the latest audit figures show.

The proposed 2012-13 budget outlines a spending plan of about $10.97 million, with projected revenues of just over $11 million.

In addition to summer school and K-5 Spanish, the proposed budget assumes cuts that include: reduction or elimination of contract technology staff for an $84,000 savings; a 25 percent cut in the facilities maintenance budget for a $25,000 savings; a 15 percent cut in all supply budgets for a $58,300 savings; a reduction in the district office staff to save $30,000; and elimination of $25,000 in funding for the traditional eighth-grade trip.

The district will "work with community representatives" to either restructure the eighth-grade trip or find alternative funding, according to a report by interim Superintendent Carol Piraino.

Ms. Piraino said in an earlier interview that the district is also talking with leaders of the nonprofit Portola Valley Schools Foundation about increasing the amount of privately donated funds the foundation gives the schools each year.

The district will try to make further cuts that would require agreement with employee unions. These recommended cuts include a salary freeze to save $110,032; elimination of up to 10 school days to save $300,000; and elimination of the summer technology institute for teachers to save $28,000.

At the June 6 meeting, a number of parents and teachers pressed board members for explanations about how the financial mess developed without their notice, clarifications about what cuts the educational program would suffer, and plans for policy changes that would ensure that such a crisis would be prevented in the future.

Although board members initially were generally silent in response to questions directed at them, deferring to staff, board member Ray Villareal at one point told the group that "for all of us on the board, it was pretty awful to learn" about the unexpected funding shortfall. He acknowledged that board members realize "we haven't collectively done the job we needed to do."

Speakers challenged board members for not being transparent about plans for program cuts and other matters related to the fiscal crisis, and encouraged district officials to talk more openly with the public, especially if they expect the community and school foundation to help staunch the district's unexpected financial wound.

Mr. Villareal and other board members agreed that they need to keep the school community better apprised about developments. But they noted that, after the financial problems were revealed, the board and district "went into triage mode" to try to figure out just what happened, and to ensure that classroom education and day-to-day school operations wouldn't be affected by the crisis.


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Posted by Pat
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Jun 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm

Okay, parents, it is time to ante up. There's enough wealth in Portola Valley to pull the schools out of this mess overnight. Part of PV's property value lies in the quality of its schools. If our schools go down, so do our property values, not to mention our community spirit.

Like this comment
Posted by Pogue
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Jun 9, 2012 at 9:34 am

Sick and tired of the board moaning about how awful and surprising it was to learn about this mess.

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Posted by realist
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jun 10, 2012 at 7:33 pm

i was at the meeting - board didn't moan - you would have known if you went. seems like they were fed a bunch of bad #s and that there is more info to come. better to be part of the solution..
come to think of it, sick and tired of people like Pogue

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jun 10, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

No need for the board to moan but they do have to accept responsibility. They choose their CEO and they signed off on the budgets and the audits. The buck stops with the board.

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Posted by Happy Students?
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Jun 11, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Yes, the Board will have to take responsibility. In the meantime, we have students that need educating and punishing them for the errors of poor oversight would be just as criminal. What needs to be raised to have the required classes? Blanket statments of "common PV families, pony up" is not helpful either. Let's get the problem fixed now and place blame later - rather than the reverse!

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Corte Madera School
on Jun 11, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I agree that the quality of education that kids receive should be the central focus- unfortunately, there is more to this issue than a momentary budget "crisis." The current financial situation is only one aspect of a core incompetence in both the school board and the recent administration- Carol Piraino and Tim Hanretty. Each aspect directly or indirectly affects the quality of the student experience in the schools.

The central method of this top-down administration is a total lack of transparency which allows disproportionate influence by a few who believe they know what is best for everyone. “Helicopter” parents and a school board of armchair quarterbacks were given the keys to the school bus, so to speak.

This led to literally millions of dollars in technology expenditures (certainly a potentially valuable tool) that were planned and implemented top-down in a rather hurried and reckless manner, leading to uneven application and even more uneven result for the students.

Furthermore, the district has gone on a parent-based hiring bender, both of parents as employees and of additional teachers to circumvent teachers that some parents disliked. This is also extremely expensive with no real benefit to the student. Not everyone will like every teacher, but dealing with diverse circumstances and making the best of what you get is a lesson bigger than any given course, “You can’t always get what you want/ but if you try real hard...”

These recent hires, as nice as they may be, have certainly not improved the quality for the students as many have been untrained, inexperienced, and generally unqualified for the positions. Portola Valley has a pay scale and student population that attracts hundreds of top-level applicants- why not hire experienced and accomplished teachers and staff instead of just hiring a local parent who needs a job?

The final element that may not be financial but is certainly hurting student learning is the dramatic lowering of teacher morale and the professional teaching environment in the last two to three years. Teacher turnover has increased due to micro-managing and outright hostile parents who have been given free reign to impose their own individual ideas about teaching and child development into the classroom. In fact, the new administration has participated in hounding and harassing the teaching staff. Imagine if every parent of every child told you how to plan your own child’s birthday party, and kept interrupting with emails and phone calls to complain about everything from the time and location of the party to the frosting and candles on the cake. Even having the Sheriff come by to inspect your home in the process... Good teaching is impossible in this environment.

The sad irony is that in the end a few influential parents who just want the best for their kids (at any cost to others) are actually lowering the value of their own children’s education along with the rest of the class.

The good news is that cutting two millions dollars from such a bloated and inefficient budget should be easy- release all the recent hires, consultants, and non-tenured staff, and put a pause on technology expenditures. Cost will go down and student value will increase.

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Posted by Member
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Jun 15, 2012 at 9:26 am

Concerned parent at 8:55 - you have your eyes wide open and you see what is truly going on at the schools. Please keep speaking out.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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