School board members on June 7 endorsed a plan by Menlo Park City School District Superintendent Maurice Ghysels to form or expand five committees as a way to involve the community in issues that arose as the district unsuccessfully attempted to pass two parcel tax measures in May.
Mr. Ghysels has proposed the district involve the public in five committees that will discuss district's finances, better ways to communicate with the public, details of a possible new parcel tax measure, and ways to raise or save money that don't involve a parcel tax.
All board committee meetings will be announced in advance and open to the public, the superintendent said. "It's a forum for people to listen and learn," he said.
At a May board meeting held soon after two parcel tax measures failed to win support of two-thirds of the voters, which is necessary for passage, board members promised to involve the community in efforts to figure out what to do next.
The budget for the 2016-17 year, which the school board is scheduled to approve Monday night (June 13), shows that even with $900,000 in budget cuts, the district will have a revenue shortfall of $5.8 million in five years without the income from the two parcel taxes.
Board members said they favor public involvement in any new parcel tax measures and decisions that affect the budget. "I think we do need a full community engagement," said board president Jeff Child. The district needs to figure out why the two parcel tax proposals didn't pass "before we throw something else out there," he said.
The failure of the tax measures to win the approval of two-thirds of the voters was an eye-opener for the district.
Last December, as part of the parcel tax discussion, a consultant hired by the district told the school board that focus groups of local residents "really like this community." They "value this community and they value the schools," she said.
The consultant said the voters she talked to "know change is happening" in Menlo Park and "they understand that the responsibility of the schools is to accommodate that."
Ruth Bernstein, a senior principal at EMC Research, told the board on Dec. 15 "the vast majority" of those in two focus groups supported a $550 parcel tax. "They were very, very positive," she said, and "have a lot of trust" in the district. What they are looking for, she said, "is maintaining quality education."
That view matched the district's history. Since 1992, state records show, voters approved all nine bond or parcel tax measures put on the ballot.
It now seems that either those focus groups didn't really represent the community, or something changed voters' minds by the time two district parcel tax measures were on the ballot in May.
One of the measures, which would have replaced an expiring parcel tax with an identical tax, was approved by 60.3 percent of the voters, still short of the two-thirds threshold. The second measure, based on the number of new students who enroll in the district, was approved by just over 54 percent of the voters.
Each measure needed approval by at least 66.7 percent of the voters to pass.
Superintendent Ghysels' plan includes the following committees:
● Finance and Audit, an existing board committee that will try to add some experts in making financial information easy to understand. The committee will continue meeting this summer to discuss that and other finance issues. The committee currently includes board members Jeff Child and Joan Lambert, the district's business official Ahmad Sheikholeslami and fiscal services director Jill Frederiksen, and four community members.
● Technology, an existing board committee that looks at new ways to use technology and examines how it is already used in the district. The committee will probably start meeting again in the fall and will look at how the district can use technology to save money, or find savings on the technology it is already using. The committee currently includes board members Maria Hilton and Terry Thygesen, Superintendent Ghysels, technology director Al Hart, principals Kristen Gracia and Willy Haug, curriculum and instruction director Jennifer Kollman, and five members of the public. The superintendent said the committee will "report on what's working and what's not."
● Recruitment and Retention Task Force, a new board committee that will "study and research salary and benefits and additional employment factors to attract and retain high quality teachers and staff." The task force will probably start to meet in the fall and have one or two board members, Superintendent Ghysels, Assistant Superintendent Erik Burmeister, manager of human resources Joan O'Neill, and other staff and community members.
● Parent and Community Funding and Community Giving, a new ad hoc superintendent's committee that will examine options for a new parcel tax election. (The election could be held Nov. 8, 2016, which board members did not favor, or on dates in 2017 March 7, May 2 or June 6 in order to be held before an existing tax expires.) The committee would have one or two board members, Superintendent Ghysels, a middle school and elementary school principal, and community members. The committee would start meeting this summer to discuss the parcel tax and later discuss other topics with a report on the tax expected by March.
● Communication, an existing ad hoc superintendent's committee that would work on "multiple, timely and simplified communication for MPCSD parents and community." The committee currently has board members Stacey Jones and Terry Thygesen, Superintendent Ghysels and Assistant Superintendent Burmeister, and will add members with expertise on finance and communication. It will begin meeting this summer.
District resident Jennifer Bestor told the board members they have to make some difficult decisions. "I really do think that in terms of this parcel tax situation, you really do need to be the adults in the room," she said.
If the district can go without the income for a year, maybe the board should wait to schedule an election, she said. Another option would be to ask for a two-year parcel tax this November to give time for further research.
Ms. Bestor also told the board that she has taken a close look at the local property tax rolls, which show that, thanks to Proposition 13, "some people are paying an extraordinary amount of money and property tax every year and others are paying very little."
She said the owners of the 40 percent of district single-family dwellings purchased in the past 10 years are paying 60 percent of the total property tax for single-family homes. The 22 percent of homes that have not changed hands since 1985 are paying only 4 percent of the taxes.
"In reaching out to the public for input, it may be important to understand a person's property tax contribution, to better understand their relationship to school funding," she said.
Superintendent Ghysels said he will bring the board members more information about the committees and their makeup when it meets on Monday, June 13, at 6 p.m. in the TERC room at 181 Encinal Ave. in Atherton.
He hopes to have all the committees ready to jump into action by September, he said. On Monday, the board is also scheduled to adopt its 2016-17 budget and approve the district's state-mandated Local Control Accountability Plan.
The agenda for Monday's meeting is online here.