Written by Eric Epstein and Grace Tramack
On Tuesday, Feb. 14th, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Board of Education held a meeting to discuss a Budget Balancing Plan for the 2017-18 year. During the 2016-17 year, the property tax growth was less than originally anticipated, equating to around a $4.2 million shortfall. Although cutting positions from the district office will be first priority, according to a presentation from the Feb. 14 meeting, other possible areas of reduction could be the elementary school music department, clerical positions at the high schools and reviewing and restructuring the Instructional Supervisor model and school psychologist assignments.
Communications and Community Engagement Director Jorge Quintana says that the Board adheres to the principles established in 2009, when PAUSD encountered a similar budget issue. These principles include transparency and openness about the finances, establishing long-term fiscal health and maintaining academic excellence along with an exceptional school environment. “The goal of the school district is to minimize the impact on its students and employees,” he said in an email. “That said, PAUSD is making an effort to focus on operations costs staying away as far as possible from the classroom.” PAUSD Board of Education President Terry Godfrey agrees that the priority should be to limit the effect of these budget cuts on students. “We have also made some commitments to other areas of interest that we also do not want to cut, things like closing the achievement gap or ensuring the safety and wellness of students,” Godfrey said.
Principal Dr. Denise Herrmann agrees with the Board’s approach to the budget cuts. “I definitely agree with the fact that the budget cuts should be as far away from the learning and teaching as possible,” she said. However, she cautions that all cuts are likely to affect the classroom in some way. “There are not a lot of frivolous costs involved at schools, as it all revolves around the teaching and learning,” she said. “It’s all on a continuum. If you are looking at three different cuts, you look at the parameters that would interfere with the classroom the least.”
The property tax payments made to PAUSD by Palo Alto citizens fluctuates annually, and 2016-17 has seen a $6.2 million decrease in property tax revenue, according to the board meeting minutes. According to Godfrey, the cause of the shortfall was a result of a slowed property tax growth and some mistakes in the revenue forecast. “There’s one part that we have no control over—how fast property tax grows— but one thing we’re doing is we’re taking the forecast [of how much PAUSD will receive from property tax] and assuming we’re not going to get all of that,” Godfrey said. “That gives a safety net.”
However, the budget forecast for this school year did not overestimate the actual budget that the district received. “At the end of the last school year, [PAUSD Chief Budget Officer] Cathy Mak had in her forecast model an assumption that was too high, so we had to go back and decide what to cut,” Godfrey said. “It was a result of some mistakes in the forecast and the property tax growth is just starting to slow down.The property tax, and thus our revenue, is still increasing each year. It’s just not increasing as much as in the recent past.”
Whatever budget plan the board decides to execute will not just be a temporary solution. “The final decision made by the Board of Education this spring will be a long-term plan,” Quintana said in an email.
Epstein and Tramack, sophomores, are reporters