As the country comes to grips with the official recession, even the wealthiest cities and school districts aren't immune. Shedding millions of dollars to just the Pleasanton school district's budget could result in more than 150 jobs lost, including about 98 teachers.
Yet, with many layoffs and salary cuts affecting residents who already pay for school measures A and B, would they be willing to shell out $200 more each year? The discussion here has grown intense at meetings as well as online at the Pleasanton Weekly's Town Square forum. If the school board decides to leave it up to the voters, which is likely, this would be just the beginning of the parcel tax debate.
How we got here
The state of California's budget has been historically late, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's first budget proposal for the coming fiscal year 2009-10, which starts July 1, was rejected. He submitted the latest proposal Dec. 31 and, as of Wednesday, it has yet to be formally adopted.
In November, the state deficit was estimated at around $12 billion. In turn, the state planned to give the district a 0.68 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) instead of the normal 5.6 percent, in addition to lowering the amount of per-pupil funding.
The state deficit continued to climb and has now reached $41.6 billion. Any COLA is off the table, and the school district faces an $8.7-million shortfall which will be cut from reserves as well as the 2009-10 school year. This is also after having about $2 million cut from the budget last year.
Luz Cazares, PUSD assistant superintendent of business services, said the $41.6-billion deficit was the result of too much spending by the state, and not enough tax revenue to support it. And the outlook isn't good for tax revenue to increase in the next year.
Schwarzenegger's solutions to bring balance to the deficit would be expenditure reductions, new revenue and borrowing. The latter two options are fairly risky, Cazares said, as borrowing requires a promise to repay and California has the lowest credit rating of any state. It also assumes $10 billion from a state lottery proposal that would need a two-thirds approval by the state legislature and a positive response from ticket buyers.
The district put together a list of possible cuts totaling $9.7 million, which would eliminate class-size reduction as well as reading specialists, counselors, teachers, athletic support, vice principals, library aids, custodians and administrators.
"As I've spent time at each of our schools, I really understand the impact that the state budget situation can have on our district," board president Chris Grant said. "Each of these programs has such a huge impact on so many kids that the thought of them being significantly reduced or eliminated is very concerning."
At the Feb. 10 regular school board meeting, trustees lamented having to make any cuts. Most, however, knew that all of the $9.7 million in reductions would at least be put on the chopping block, with the majority being cut once a final budget would be passed.
In addition to advocating at the state level for systemic changes to make school budgeting more predictable, Superintendent John Casey said that the bottom line for him is that a parcel tax is part of the solution for Pleasanton schools.
Ready for a parcel tax?
The tax initiative would need a two-thirds majority to pass, if brought before the voters, and would be collected annually per parcel, or property, within the school district boundaries. Casey said some unincorporated areas would be involved in the parcel tax. He also added that the northeast portion of Ruby Hill--about 15 percent of the gated community--lies within the Livermore school district so homes there would be exempt from paying a Pleasanton school district parcel tax. Sunol property owners also would not be assessed a parcel tax even though children there are eligible to attend Pleasanton high schools. Seniors as well as those on disability would likely be exempt as well.
It appears that the state may be putting an item on the June ballot, meaning that the school district would share the cost of a special election. It is believed that a shared cost would be about $150,000.
In order to inform residents about the budget crisis, the district set up two budget forums at the high schools, in addition to the regular board meetings on the second and fourth Tuesdays and special board workshops held Feb. 3 and 17. The district has also held meetings at school sites, with PTA groups and the Chamber of Commerce.
Since news of having to cut $8.7 million from the district budget, Casey and the board members have invited people to call, email, stop by the district offices and/or speak at meetings to lend ideas and concerns.
Grant said the board members have received well over 500 emails, and Casey said he's received feedback both in person and on the phone from about 80 people. Even the posters on Town Square are being heard, as the district often takes questions from the forum to address in their frequently asked questions page on their website.
"Overwhelmingly, the feedback we received has been positive towards wanting to provide a community-based funding source to preserve the programs," Grant said.
One way to help families unable to afford the tax, Grant says, would be to work with the school foundations and create a fund providing support to families who aren't able to pay for the parcel. That way, residents or even business groups could donate to the fund.
Kay Ayala, former city councilwoman, attended the forums held at Amador and Foothill.
"When I got to the meeting at Amador, I was flabbergasted," she said. "This is a done deal; they're going for a parcel tax."
She felt they were pulling emotional strings with the cuts to justify the tax when there hadn't been an open process. Later, however, she thanked the board for being responsive and more transparent, and holding more meetings.
"I have talked with parents who know they can't afford to pay more on their taxes," she added. "Not in a million years do they feel like they can come forward. It's a very intimidating scenario."
Ayala said that right now she is neutral on the subject of a parcel tax and is not planning to form a committee.
"What concerns me is we don't have a clear financial picture for the district," she said. "I want complete information before you decide if you're for or against."
She was also "perplexed" that the board failed to hold a survey before they would decide to go forward with the special election.
In June 2007, the Lew Edwards Group and EMC Research presented findings from a survey asking residents their opinion on a parcel tax. Originally, it would have gone towards funding additional programs recommended.
At that time, the survey results showed there wasn't a "super majority" who thought the district needed more money. Alex Evans, president of EMC Research, told the board that while education was not a big worry, voters would support a tax that would address class-size reduction, vocational education and upgraded technology.
Jessica Reynolds of Lew Edwards said the same survey showed 53 percent would support a $190 per parcel tax. In the end, the board voted 4-1 (with Arkin dissenting) not to conduct another parcel tax survey, which would cost an estimated $30,000.
"The problem is they're setting up the community in a very divisive way," Ayala said. "It's starting to look like if you oppose a tax, you oppose teachers and kids. They need to be careful on how they proceed."
At Feb. 17's budget workshop meeting, the district passed around version three draft of the potential ballot language. It reads:
"To maintain educational quality and protect Pleasanton schools from the impact of state budget cuts; keep class sizes small; prepare students for 21st century careers; maintain important school services like libraries, counselors, and music; ensure current classroom technology; and continue to provide safe and clean schools for our children; shall Pleasanton Unified School District be authorized to levy $180 per parcel with guaranteed annual audits and Independent Citizens' Oversight?"
While the official vote to go forward with a parcel tax has yet to be made, most expect the board members to move forward with it. The ballot language would be due by March 6 in order to be on the June ballot.
"I'm frustrated at the inefficient historical funding to public education and that we rank in the bottom decile across the country from a per-student investment," Grant said. "I feel as though we need to take control of our own destiny in Pleasanton. But I also very clearly recognize that there are a lot of folks in Pleasanton who are having their own economic challenges."
The current proposed amount, $180, would cover roughly half of the current budget shortfall, meaning that many cuts would still take place. After meeting in Sacramento, Casey said they learned new information regarding cuts.
First, is that changing step-in-column pay increases is difficult, because districts would be required by law to pay it back. Second, they learned that there could be some flexibility regarding class size reduction, by going to 24 or 25 students. This would affect ninth grade English and math classrooms as well as kindergarten through third grade.
People have criticized Casey's salary ($227,002) and management perks, and he said he makes no apologies for his earnings.
"I, along with other managers, we're going to step up at the right point in time," Casey said, adding that the time would be Feb. 24.
While pay cuts for him as well as other staff would have to be negotiated, he said they are looking into furlough and a reduction in working days next year, which is essentially a pay cut.
Another area of scrutiny has been the $2 million spent in legal fees in a suit against Signature Properties over Neal Elementary. However, they are currently suing the law firm, Lozano Smith, with any money coming in going to pay back the fees. Even though many teachers and parents have asked that a particular program or position be spared, it is likely that they will all be identified to go in order to send out potential layoff notices by March 15.
Board member Jamie Yee Hintzke asked Feb. 17 whether the board should be identifying more areas to cut, in case the final state budget is worse than predicted.
"We identified almost $9.7 million in cuts," Cazares said, "Casey noted that the deficit looked to be $8.7 million. We are feeling we might have enough wiggle room."
The next school board meeting will be Feb. 24 at the district offices located at 4665 Bernal Ave. The regular meeting starting at 7 p.m. and a budget workshop starting at 5 p.m. More information is at www.pleasanton.k12.ca.us.