Menlo Park school district paints bleak picture without new parcel tax

Cuts in programs and teacher support, plus increased class sizes would be needed, district says

After failing to pass two parcel tax measures in May, with enrollment growing and the state requiring more district contributions to employee pensions, the Menlo Park City School District has been pondering how to erase a predicted $5.3 million deficit.

On Tuesday night, Oct. 18, Superintendent Maurice Ghysels presented a plan that he said could have the district back in the black within three years. It called for slashing programs, increasing class sizes and eliminating positions throughout the district, holding back on cost-of-living increases for staff, and reducing spending on everything from technology to staff training.

Only by passing a new $515 per parcel tax, would the need for cuts be eliminated, he said. If the expiring $207 per parcel tax is renewed, the district would still need to make $2.7 million in cuts he said.

Examples of the cuts that are laid out include:

• Increasing kindergarten- to fifth-grade class sizes from an average of 22 to 24 ($1 million savings).

• Increasing sixth- to eighth-grade class sizes from an average of 24 to 27 ($650,000 savings).

• Using aides supervised by teachers to teach elementary school art classes ($206,000) and run the libraries ($250,000).

• Eliminating a night custodian ($60,000).

• Cutting back on middle school elective offerings ($220,000).

• Reducing music time in fourth and fifth grade by 50 percent ($190,000).

• Eliminating the world language programs in kindergarten to fifth grades ($210,000).

• Cutting back or eliminating the program that gives an iPad to each middle school student ($150,000).

• Eliminating middle-school mini courses ($80,000).

• Reducing each site budget for supplies, professional development and training by 30 percent ($100,000).

• Eliminating summer school except for mandated programs ($120,000).

• Reducing teacher work year by 3 days, from 189 to 186 days ($375,000).

• Reducing site and district administration work days by five days per year ($45,000).

• Reducing cost-of-living compensation increases by 0.5 percent a year ($800,000 by year four).

One cut not mentioned was elimination of the assistant superintendent position, which Vince Lopez, who represents the teachers' union, had asked in an earlier meeting be done before teachers are cut.

Board members seemed to have a hard time finding any cuts they could support.

"This is a horrible night," said board member Terry Thygesen. "I'm looking at this dismantling of a really high quality education for children that this community has worked very hard to build over the last 15-plus years."

Board member Joan Lambert pointed out, however, that even if the expiring parcel tax is extended some cuts will be needed.

"I would agree with Terry ... this is crazy," she said. "I am disheartened to see the size and the magnitude of all of these cuts."

She suggested increasing class sizes and reducing the work year might hurt less than other cuts.

"As a parent, I would rather have another couple of kids in my child's class rather than get rid of all these other things you are proposing," Ms. Lambert said.

At least 47 teachers and other district staff attended the meeting, according to teachers' union representative Vince Lopez. More than 140 people were in the audience.

Among the dozens who spoke was Oak Knoll Principal Kristen Gracia, who said she is a Menlo Park homeowner and parent of three children in the district. She said she is "so disappointed" by the failure of the parcel taxes and divisive conversations that have gone on about the district. "This is not the community I know," she said.

The district now gives its educators "space to innovate to make school work for every kid," she said. "I will personally do whatever needs to happen ... to get us out of this ... to keep our teachers who are so good," she said.

"We must preserve the experience because we believe in this experience," she said. "I invite anyone to come to Oak Knoll ... and I personally will show you why we need to continue to do what we do."

Longtime district parent Kate Kennedy, who has a Hillview eighth-grader and a high school sophomore, said the district "is a special place. It truly is a family," she said. "Sitting here watching these proposed reductions, it really breaks my heart."

She, like several other speakers, called out district opponents who have used social media to fight the parcel taxes. "I see a lot of almost willful misinformation out there," she said.

Ms. Kennedy suggested the district might look at keeping less money in reserve. "I feel we are in a rather dire economic situation," she said. "It just feels weird to talk about pink-slipping teachers when we're sitting on these reserves."

Superintendent Maurice Ghysels said that if the district makes cuts of $1.5 million for each of the next three years, the district will be able to balance the budget while keeping reserves no lower than 14 percent. The state requires reserves of 3 percent, but the district has a policy of having at least two months of payroll in reserve, which is closer to 20 percent.

The total of $4.5 million in cuts is less than the predicted deficit, because the district will save money by making cuts early, he said. He laid out $5.8 million in possible cuts, meaning that all but $1.3 million of the cuts would be needed to close the budget gap without a parcel tax.

However, since the district cannot get a parcel tax on the ballot before March 2017, and there is a March 15 deadline for serving teachers with layoff notices, the district must plan to make at least $1.5 million in cuts in case a parcel tax is not approved.

The district has not decided if it will ask for a new parcel tax, and if it does, how much it will be and when it would go before the voters.

Upcoming meetings on closing the budget gap include:

Two special board meetings to take public input on the advisability and details of a new parcel tax, at 9 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 24, and at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 25, both in the Hillview Middle School Performing Arts Center, 1100 Elder Ave. in Menlo Park.

Regular board meetings on Nov. 9 and Nov. 30 will include the budget gap on their agendas. Both will be in the Hillview Performing Arts Center, starting at 6 p.m.

The Nov. 30 meeting is scheduled so the board could meet a Dec. 2 deadline to put a parcel tax measure on the March 2017 ballot.

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