By Erik Burmeister
I like adventure. And when the Menlo Park City School District board put my potential appointment as the district's next superintendent on the agenda, it was clear that adventure might possibly await.
In addition to a new superintendent, the district is opening a new school, welcoming two new board members, addressing the ramifications of two failed parcel tax measures, and making difficult decisions regarding its financial future.
The most important question at the heart of my potential adventure is not, Am I excited to be considered? Without a doubt, I am humbled and honored. The real question for all of us is: What kind of district will I be tasked to lead?
Different narratives swirl as to why the district has found itself in a structural deficit in the first place. The economy is strong, California is returning money to schools it once held back, homes are selling faster and for more than ever. How could the district possibly be in this position? This is a fair question.
From my perspective, informed by many years outside of the Menlo Park City School District, our district is partly a victim of its own success.
Years ago, leaders in our community felt strongly that our schools could and should compare favorably to those of our neighbors. To my estimation, we have exceeded expectations.
As a result, housing prices have soared, families have flocked to homes in the district, and enrollment has increased. New families have invested in this community with the expectation that this quality of education is something on which they can depend.
While our neighboring districts experience decreasing enrollment, our district has added 55 new students this year alone. After an enrollment growth of more than 18 percent in seven years, we anticipate adding another 300 students by 2025.
Being "community funded" means the district will receive the same amount of money each year, regardless of how many students attend. So as our neighboring community funded districts have negative or static enrollment growth, they have more money to spend per student than the Menlo Park district. Our community can be proud of the excellent product we provide, and we've done it for less money per student than any of our neighboring districts with similar programs.
Were increased enrollment our only challenge, we could probably address it without significant reductions or revenue increases. However, two other challenges stare us in the face.
The first is the expiration of the 2010 Measure C parcel tax, which brings in $1.6 million annually and will sunset on July 1. Were enrollment to have stabilized in the last six years, we might be able to manage simply with the increases to our property tax rate. Sadly, and contrary to what one might assume, the portion of the property tax increase that the district receives doesn't make up the difference in the costs related to enrollment increases, much less cover the costs of the projected increase of 300 students over nine years.
The third and final challenge that faces all California districts is the state's decision to move more of its financial burden of providing a solvent teacher retirement system to the local districts, amounting to an increase from 8.25 percent of a teacher's salary in 2014 to 19.1 percent by 2020. Regardless of what one thinks of public pensions, this is a real cost to the district, one we cannot avoid.
So where does this leave us? I believe it leaves us with a choice. What kind of a district does our community want the next superintendent to lead? Do we want to spend the next five years tied up in a budget crisis, or do we want to spend our time doing what we do best – imagining and providing a truly noteworthy education?
The answers are out there; we just have to come together to find them. They will likely involve a combination of reductions and revenue.
Honestly, the decisions about what we should do have not been made. In fact, the decision to appoint me has not been made. These decisions happen in public and the public is invited, in fact implored, to share its perspective.
You will determine what kind of district the next superintendent leads. I hope you will visit district.mpcsd.org and get involved.
As for me, should the board appoint me superintendent, I am excited for the adventure.