A school board meeting can be a lonely place. But Tuesday night, members of the public filled most of the 100 seats in the multi-use room at Encinal School to participate in a discussion about what the Menlo Park City School District should do in the aftermath of the failure to pass two parcel tax measures.
The district says without the money that would have been raised by the two taxes, it could have an annual $6 million shortfall within five years.
When the two parcel tax measures on a special May 3 election ballot received less than the two-thirds majority needed to pass, it was the first time in decades that voters in the district failed to approve a school finance measure.
The semi-official results released May 9 show Measure A, which would have renewed a parcel tax that will expire at the end of June 2017, received 3,528 "yes" votes, 60.2 percent of the total, and short of the 66.7 percent needed to pass. The "no" vote was 2,328.
Measure C, which would have added an annual $2.20-per-parcel tax for each student who enrolls beyond the district's current 2,938 students, received 3,156 "yes" votes, 54 percent of the total, also short of the 66.7 percent needed. The "no" vote was 2,692.
"Transparency," a term that has come to indicate not only freely sharing information with the public, but making it available in an easily understandable form, was mentioned by speaker after speaker at the board meeting.
Mary Beth Suhr, a 27-year resident of Menlo Park whose two children attended district schools, said she has "always been a great supporter of the schools." But as someone with a background in finance, she wondered when she received her ballot with the two parcel tax measures, "how could we not have enough money to support the schools?" she said. "It seemed the revenues were really, really high and growing fantastically," she said.
Ms. Suhr said she tried to look up the district's budget documents for herself, and found the experience frustrating. "I think we need to have greater transparency," she said.
Karen Lucas, a Menlo Park resident and teacher in another district, had a similar comment. "I am very supportive of public education. I don't think I have ever not voted for anything related to schools," she said.
However, she said, she has "some serious concerns about the spending that is going on at this time."
"I would appreciate transparency so I don't have to go digging through the agenda to find out where it's gone, how much has been spent," she said.
Board members agreed. "We've got people who don't understand our numbers," said board president Jeff Child. "I think we need to get that solved."
"If people don't trust the board or don't think the board is transparent, I think that's an issue that needs to be resolved," he said. He recommended forming a subcommittee including board members and community members "and not just parents," he said.
Mr. Child said he thinks it is now sometimes impossible for the public to go to the district's website and figure things out. "I think the current state is, through nobody's fault, unacceptable," he said.
Board member Joan Lambert said the district can't wait. "I think we need to start now," she said. School budgeting is complex and difficult to understand, she said. "It's incumbent on us to try to make that as easy to understand as possible," she said.
"We need to go out and have a very serious engagement with our community," said board member Terry Thygesen. Ms. Thygesen said the district does have a higher parcel tax than any other nearby district. "Have we just hit a threshold of parcel tax tolerance?" she asked. "I feel like we have some work to do."
Superintendent Maurice Ghysels said that there are three choices for the district to make up for the money it will not receive from the parcel taxes. It can increase revenues, whether through another try at a parcel tax or by increasing donations to the school; it can reduce compensation for employees, through cutting staff and increasing class sizes or cutting salaries and benefits; or it can reduce the programs offered by the district.
Increasing class sizes from the district average of 22 could save close to $500,000 for each student the average is increased by, Superintendent Ghysels said. The savings would come from reducing the number of teachers needed.
Ms. Thygesen pointed out that to make up the entire $6 million shortfall, class sizes would have to go up to an average of 33. "Not recommending that, not suggesting that," she said.
Board members asked Superintendent Ghysels to come back with more information in June. They asked him to look closely at the election results, including turnout and who voted. They also asked him to look into ways the district could increase donations from the community.
In addition, board members asked the superintendent to look at the district's compensation policy and to have a discussion about how the district wants to compensate its teachers, including comparisons with other nearby district.
Taking a look at other districts' policies about allowing teachers' children to attend the district was also suggested.
Mr. Child said the board wants to take a close look at how the district spends money in every category. "There's no way you can say what you want to cut until you accurately know what you're spending," he said.
Board member Maria Hilton said the community needs to tell the district what they are willing to lose, not just what they want to preserve. "Please help us in that process," she said.
One way the district will not be able to cut expenses is by cutting back on pension benefits, the board heard. Unlike local governments, which can negotiate their pensions, "we do not set the retirement age or all those sorts of things," said Mr. Child.
"We have absolutely no ability to negotiate a different pension" structure said Ms. Thygesen. "The bill is handed to us and the bill is handed to our employees."
Superintendent Ghysels said the state, in response to the growing number of retirees and a teachers' pension system without enough money to pay those pensions, has been steadily increasing the contributions that must be made by districts and teachers into the system. For example, the district had to pay 8.25 percent of teachers' salaries into the system in 2013-14; but by 2020-21 it will be up to 19.1 percent, he said.
Some of the speakers did urge the district to try again with another parcel tax. Alka Gupta, co-chair of the district's fundraising foundation, said it is not possible to raise enough donations. "That's a struggle," she said.
Instead she asked for "increased transparency, increased operational efficiency" and another try at a parcel tax.
District resident Joe Giarrusso said he believes a parcel tax with an expiration date could be approved. "I think you'd have a very good chance of passing it as long as there's a sunset clause wrapped into it," he said.
Scott Saywell, a parent at Laurel School, said people don't trust the information that is coming from the board and the administration. "The people who are living in Menlo Park and Atherton are pretty smart people," he said. "Just tell people straight."