Menlo Park City School District officials asked members of the public to share their priorities and options as the district plans for its long-term financial future, and on Feb. 6 the community did just that.
The school board and district administrators heard from teachers who said the local high cost of living makes it important to pay teachers well. They heard from parents who said they really don't like that the district this year increased the maximum class size to save money.
They heard from a former school board member who said increasing the achievement of disadvantaged students should be given highest priority. And they heard from a resident who no longer has children in district schools, who said the district should just figure out what is needed to offer the very best possible education and then ask the community to pitch in.
The public input session -- and an earlier meeting held in October -- fulfilled promises made during the campaign for the parcel tax measure approved by 79 percent of voters in March 2017 to involve the public in planning the school district's long-term financial future.
One thing the session made clear is that the board will have some difficult choices to make, just as it did after two parcel tax measures failed in May 2016. The board decided then to cut spending and ask for a smaller parcel tax.
In making the cuts, board members had to decide whether to prioritize employee salaries, breadth of class program offerings, or class size. At that time the board decided to slightly increase class size to preserve most programs and salary levels while decreasing spending.
Vince Lopez, a third-grade district teacher and the president of the teachers' union, said high local cost of living has driven some teachers out of the district. "The bottom line is that it is damned expensive to live here," Mr. Lopez said.
"Strong teachers cannot teach in an area that they cannot afford to live in," he said.
Julie Williams, a sixth-grade teacher at Hillview, said the district's compensation "is not currently pacing with" that in other nearby districts. She said she looked at what a teacher with her 22 years of experience would make in the Palo Alto Unified School District. With higher pay and better benefits, she said, "I would be earning over $18,000 more per year one town over."
She also researched the salaries and living costs in her hometown of Chappaqua, New York. There, she said, she'd make $14,000 a year more and could buy a four-bedroom, four-bath home on three acres for $950,000.
"I don't want to do that. I'm in no hurry to leave," she said. "But I have an obligation to pay my bills and shelter my family."
School board member David Ackerman, who is a retired district principal, agreed that teacher pay should be a priority. "Everybody at this table knows that teachers are underpaid," he said. "Nobody argues with that, but nobody does much about it," he said.
"For the last 100 years we've been able to get away with that" because historically most teachers were women, he said. "It's time to pay teachers what they're worth."
"The issue of teacher pay is a moral issue with me," Mr. Ackerman said. "We need to develop a compensation philosophy that says the most important people in this district are teachers."
But board member Caroline Lucas, who is a teacher in the Las Lomitas Elementary School District, had another view. "It's hard for me to say this, but we, the board, don't represent the teachers, we represent the community," she said. "The sad truth is, we could not give a raise to teachers of 30 years and they would still stay here, probably," she said.
"I sadly believe there are not many places to go that would pay more," she said.
Suzanne Yonkers, who has two preschoolers and a first-grader at Laurel School Lower Campus, said she was unhappy with one of the budget-saving compromises the district had chosen.
"I am here to address the increased class size we saw this year," she said. Her child's class increased from 18 students in kindergarten to 24 in first grade this year.
"We have the largest class sizes in this area," she said.
Christa West, the parent of three Oak Knoll School students, said teacher pay, class size and programs are all important. Teachers should have competitive salaries and the best benefits possible, she said. "I also think we need to keep class sizes at a reasonable amount," she said.
Options in programs make schools more exciting and alive, Ms. West added. "Those are what make kids excited about going to school," she said.
Dan McMahon, a 25-year resident of the district who no longer has children in school, said the community is willing to pay for good schools. "Your job is to make decisions that make the best school district possible," he said.
"The community is ready to support you," he said.
Board member Stacey Jones reminded everyone that "as a district we have finite resources," as do some of the district's residents.
"We don't have limitless funds," she said. "How do we balance these priorities? I'm still struggling."
Superintendent Erik Burmeister said the board will receive more information about the district's current budget condition on March 15, and a report on long-term financial planning will be ready before a June 5 meeting.