Note: This is an expanded version of an earlier story.
Speakers at two public-input sessions about a possible new parcel tax for the Menlo Park City School District almost universally favored another tax, with several people suggesting a tax high enough to avoid all budget cuts.
But district officials acknowledged at the end of the meetings, held Oct. 24 and 25, that most of those they have been hearing from, besides teachers, have students in the district. In the previous parcel tax election, however, fewer than 15 percent of registered voters had children in district schools.
Assistant Superintendent Erik Burmeister said that of nearly 250 people who had posted comments on the district's website regarding the district's finances using an online form, more than 80 percent currently had students in the district, about 6 percent previously had students there, and close to 5 percent had children who may eventually attend district schools.
One voter without a district student who spoke was Peter Carpenter, an Atherton resident who had strongly opposed two parcel taxes that failed to gain the needed two-thirds' voter approval in May 2016.
Mr. Carpenter recommended that a $515 parcel tax measure with a term of about six years be placed on the ballot in March. "I think it can be done, but it has to be a community-wide effort," he said.
After the meeting, Mr. Carpenter said his recommendation came from a belief that "the entire community needs to decide the issue of how much we are willing to support MPCSD and I think that decision needs to come before the teacher (layoff) notification date."
Mr. Carpenter said he has not, however, decided how he will vote.
Scott Hinshaw, co-chair of the May parcel taxes campaign, had a different take. "I believe we can find a compromise in our community, but it is going to require a bit of belt-tightening and sacrifice on all our parts -- parents, the schools, the board, the teachers and the community," he said.
Among his ideas: the suggested annual contribution to the district's foundation and parent teacher organization be raised by $250 to a total of $2,000 per student annually. "If we are able to do this and 70 percent of our families participate, this will add $500,000 in revenue to our schools every year," he said. He also suggested the Menlo Park Atherton Education Foundation give the district an extra $100,000 per year for the next three years from its $2.9 million endowment.
Mr. Hinshaw also asked the district to spend some of its "economic uncertainty" reserves in the coming year to allow it to avoid issuing teacher layoff notices and to help in retaining and attracting teachers.
For district teachers and staff, he suggested a three-year salary freeze, citing the district's contract with Erik Burmeister, who will become superintendent in July, which keeps his salary flat for three years.
Mr. Hinshaw also asked voters to consider that "our community has accumulated a staggering amount of wealth in property values over the last 10 to 20 years in the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars." Mr. Hinshaw said property tax revenues have grown, but not "enough to keep up with enrollment outpacing our neighbors."
"Out of the hundreds of millions of dollars in appreciation we have had, I don't think it's a big ask for a few hundred dollars for our schools," he said.
District parent Jen Wolosin urged the school board to do whatever it could to protect the district's teachers and small class sizes that ensure "every child in the classroom is getting what he needs."
School board candidate and district parent Scott Saywell said he has talked to hundreds of district residents while campaigning.
"By definition, as a community-funded district, our community decides the size of our budget," he said. The community will support a parcel tax, he said.
He suggested the district do more to inform the public about the budget impacts of state-mandated pension costs.
Kelly Morehead said her family, like several others, moved to the district because of the quality of the schools. "I think you should go out and ask for the full amount," she said.
District parent Hongran Stone told board members they face communication challenges. "My neighbor who has a kid in Oak Knoll didn't know we have a budget deficit," she said.
Teacher Jeffrey Mead said teachers need to help campaign for the new parcel tax. "If this is going to benefit us and save our jobs, we should be out there too," he said.
Jennifer Bestor, a Menlo Park resident who formerly had a child in the district, reminded the board that the district has many disadvantaged students who would feel cuts first. "It is the children who have the least in this district who will suffer," she said.
Sarah Leslie, an Oak Knoll School parent, said voters need to understand how many volunteer hours go into district schools, including from volunteers without children there. "People feel this is a community institution and they want to help out," she said.
At District.MPCSD.org, the district's website, videos of the budget meeting will be posted. Assistant Superintendent Erik Burmeister said a list of answers to frequently asked questions will also be posted soon.