News

Financial outlook is improving for Menlo Park City School District

With one-time state funds, district projects a slight surplus in coming fiscal year

This graphic shows the revenues the Menlo Park City School District expects in the 2018-19 fiscal year. (Courtesy Menlo Park City School District)

With an expanding economy bringing in extra property tax and one-time state revenues, plus a slowdown in projected enrollment growth, the Menlo Park City School District is cancelling planned spending cuts for the coming fiscal year.

In recent years, the school district has had to cut spending and increase the average size of its classes to balance its long-term budget. This year, however, cuts that the district had planned to make to balance the budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year will not be needed, Chief Business and Operations Officer Ahmad Sheikholeslami told the district's board at a June 5 meeting.

One factor is the fact that the district, which in the past decade has seen a 30 percent growth in enrollment, believes its student numbers will remain flat for the next three or four years. A demographer had previously projected the district might see an additional 150 students over that same period, but enrollment was down for the current school year, and a new study shows growth leveling out.

Unlike most California school districts, the Menlo Park district (as well as the Las Lomitas, Woodside Elementary and Portola Valley districts) receives very little additional funding when enrollment grows. Because of high local property tax revenues, the local school districts are considered community-funded districts and receive almost all their funding from local sources. Districts with lower property tax revenues get money from the state that increases with enrollment.

The Menlo district's budget for 2018-19 shows total revenues of $51.2 million, with 86 percent of that coming from property taxes, parcel taxes and donations from the Menlo Park Atherton Education Foundation.

The district's budget shows $51.5 million in spending, with 88.7 percent going to salaries and benefits. The district plans to increase the number of employees by the equivalent of 2.78 people. The budget includes a previously-negotiated 3 percent salary increase for all employees except management, who have a 1.5 percent increase factored in.

In an attempt to keep the state's pension systems out of bankruptcy, since 2014 California has required increasing pension payments from employers and employees in the systems, with the contributions doubling over seven years. The budget report says the amount of the district's budget going toward benefits -- including pension costs, health and welfare, and retiree benefits -- has increased by 8 percent, or $3.2 million, since 2013-14.

While the district's budget shows more spending than revenues, the totals do not include the use of one-time revenues of over $1 million from the state, grants and other sources. With those funds included, the district will see a small surplus of about $88,000 for the year, a report on the budget says.

That surplus could increase to about $350,000 if the one-time funds for schools that Governor Jerry Brown has included in his budget are approved by the Legislature, the report says. The district didn't include those funds in its projections, however, because in past years the Legislature has changed the governor's allocations.

The three-year budget projections indicate the district will be able to retain reserve levels above 15 percent of the operating budget through the 2020-21 fiscal year. The three-year projections show the district starting the 2018-19 fiscal year with a fund balance of $13.5 million, dropping to $10.9 million by the beginning of the 2022-23 fiscal year.

School board President Terry Thygesen said she was "breathing a sigh of relief, because it could have been a lot worse." However, she said, the district is not "fully funded" and she wants the school board to have a discussion about what that term might mean. "How far are we from what we need and want to do the job?" she asked.

"I don't think we're anywhere close to ideal," she said.

Board member David Ackerman, a retired district principal, said he agreed. The district has fewer resources than it did in the past, he said. Classroom teachers take on half the physical education programs and art teachers have less time to spend with each class of students, he said. "We've just gotten used to those things and we've shrunk those programs," he said.

But board member Caroline Lucas, a teacher at the Las Lomitas Elementary School District's La Entrada Middle School, said things have also been worse. "I remember when I taught all the PE, and all the art, and all the science," she said.

This district is "increasing our staff at a time when we're not increasing our students," she said. "I'm not sure ... that we can continue to dream as we once did, especially with the escalating pension costs."

Sheikholeslami warned that is important to remember that the robust economy is not likely to continue indefinitely. "We are in an unprecedented growth period," he said. "We need to protect ourselves" from a recession, he said.

The district is scheduled to give final approval to the budget at a Tuesday, June 12 meeting, which will start at 6 p.m. in the TERC Board Room, 181 Encinal Ave. in Atherton.

See the agenda for that meeting here.

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Comments

2 people like this
Posted by Davis Mellor
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jun 8, 2018 at 8:18 am

The article says, “since 2014 California has required increasing pension payments from employers and employees in the systems, with the contributions doubling over seven years. The budget report says the amount of the district's budget going toward benefits -- including pension costs, health and welfare, and retiree benefits -- has increased by 8 percent, or $3.2 million, since 2013-14.”

These pension costs will continue to increase dramatically, crowding out other spending and encouraging school boards to.keep coming back to the community for more money. School board members say they can do nothing about this. But this thinking is wrong. They can and need to pressure legislators to address the issue in a meaningful way.

Lifetime pensions with full health benefits just aren’t realistic anymore. We need to cut fixed benefit pensions, pay teachers more, and let them invest in savings plans like 401k’s like private sector people do.


2 people like this
Posted by Tim
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Jun 8, 2018 at 11:58 am

I agree with Davis. Teachers complain about salary, but school districts can't pay much more salary because pensions costs are rising so fast. Schools are actually providing high compensation increases. It's just going to pensions, but that seems less of a need for teachers struggling to live in this area.

The state should give teachers the choice. Let them choose higher salary now or higher pension later. It would be cash neutral to the school district, but give the teacher flexibility. It's a bit like how private employees can choose to contribute a high percentage or low percentage of salary to a 401K.


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