Mountain View Voice
News - June 6, 2014
New group slams LASD board performance
Trustees defend district, say ads about taxes are misleading and inaccurate
by Kevin Forestieri
A new nonprofit group, critical of Los Altos School District leadership and spending, ran ads in the Voice
and Los Altos Town Crier last week highlighting the amount of parcel taxes that LASD taxpayers pay — about $790 each year. The group, which calls itself Each Student Counts, says it will elevate the dialog about contentious school issues, but Los Altos board trustees and finance committee members question the group's motives, saying the ads are factually inaccurate and lack context.
Each Student Counts is a nonprofit based in Los Altos that says it aims to promote civil, fact-based dialog about priorities and needs in public education, according to the group's website. The site also says the group will provide information about failed leadership and fiscal irresponsibility on the part of LASD board trustees.
"Sometimes emotions and subjective facts dominate the conversation," said Rob Fagen, president of Each Student Counts, who has a child who attends Bullis Charter School. "We're just putting out the facts as accurately as possible."
The first round of ads lists the parcel taxes of local school districts, and claims that LASD taxpayers pay anywhere from 1.3 to 10 times more in taxes than neighboring districts. It encourages readers to contact board members and ask what they get for paying more.
"We want people to ask themselves, 'Are we getting what we expect from what we're putting into the schools?'" Fagen said.
But there's a perfectly good reason why parcel taxes are higher in Los Altos, and the ads lack the needed context to understand why, according to Joe Seither, member of the LASD Citizens' Advisory Committee for Finance.
Seither said the Los Altos School District relies on parcel taxes as a major component in the budget — about 22 percent of the school's revenue per student. Unlike neighboring school districts, which can rely on commercial property tax or state and federal funds, LASD's budget is almost entirely made up of parcel tax and residential property tax revenue.
The total LASD revenue per student ends up at around $10,300 per student — significantly less than Palo Alto Unified School District, and a little higher than the Mountain View Whisman School District.
Seither called the ad a non-specific slam against the district. He said if the goal of Each Student Counts is to be factual, unbiased and improve the district, they shouldn't have used the flat parcel tax number without the needed context.
"Are they suggesting we cut the (parcel tax) funding and shift the burden?" Seither said. "Should we lean on the PTA instead? How would we grow commercial tax revenue?"
According to a statement by the Los Altos School District, the ad also misstated the parcel tax of Menlo Park City Elementary School District. The ad claims the parcel tax is $178 per parcel per year, which is true — for one of the four parcel taxes levied. Added together, the parcel taxes in Menlo Park City are $809, higher than in Los Altos. The statement calls the miscalculation an "egregious factual error," and criticizes the use of a per-parcel metric to judge fiscal responsibility and outcomes.
Seither said it's curious that the group would attack parcel taxes, which were approved by voters without the use of deception.
"Nobody is pulling wool over their eyes. People approve the parcel taxes because they want good teachers and a range of programs at the schools," Seither said.
The ongoing debate between Los Altos School District and Bullis Charter School may also be tangentially involved in the conflict as well. Seither said Fagen is a parent of a BCS student and very critical of LASD, and was active in the protests after a facilities dispute led to a student lockout last year.
Each Student Counts says one of its goals is to promote fiscal responsibility and transparency in the Los Altos School District. But the district appears to have a pretty good track record for both, according to Randy Kenyon, the district's associate superintendent. Los Altos has received the Meritorious Budget Award 14 years in a row for its excellence in accurate and transparent budget presentation.
The district was also awarded the Certificate of Achievement of Excellence in Financial Reporting for the last 10 years by the Government Finance Officers Association. The certificate is awarded to local governments for full disclosure and transparency of financial reports.
Email Kevin Forestieri at email@example.com
Posted by LASD Resident,
a resident of another community
on Jun 8, 2014 at 1:04 pm
You are right. Clearly BCS (assuming you mean Bullis Charter School) started off from a base of LASD and so it benefits from LASD's culture and values. Similarly, in developing its program since 2004, it has added innovative curriculum continually, and LASD has observed what BCS has done and emulated it. Bullis has team teaching and is responsive to individual learning rates of the child, allowing some kids to not be held back and allowing other to obtain extra help where needed. LASD has emulated that by developing its differentiated instruction model. Coding is another example where Bullis started it first and in fact starts in very early grades. Bullis has had STEM classes and specialized teachers from early on. LASD added a STEM teacher at each school this year. More of this back and forth would have occurred had the LASD trustees not been so antagonistic to the IDEA of having an experimental program within the district (but operated as a charter school which costs the district nothing extra, in fact, costs less).
Another factor here is that the entire district is composed of above average kids. The ability to succeed at educating them is facilitated by their aptitudes and family support systems going in. The parents are prepared to invest an inordinate amount in the education of their children. Numerous local tutoring companies are kept in business by LASD parents investing in one on one and small group tutoring programs for their children. The income level overall across LASD is tremendously high. No one to speak of in California is working at providing expanded educational programs for well off children, but that is what occurs both with Bullis and with LASD as a whole. There is a lot that can be learned by teachers working with well supported kids. Eventually this translates to opportunities for other kids too, maybe even sooner rather than later. There are after all 200 or so low income kids spread all across LASD's 5200 public school students (9 traditional schools and Bullis's 2 site split) and its 2000 private school students. One of the reason LASD's per student income reaches $12,000 is that 2000 students attend private schools, which is an above average number for the size of the population.
Also in LASD, the PTA's at each school raise a lot of money, $500 to $1000 per child, and contribute it to what they think will benefit their kids-- Computers, reimbursing school supply expenses, beautify the grounds of the school--just about anything. They operate after school programs which use district space and charge tuition for children to participate. There is quite a bit of money spent on these educational enrichment programs for LASD students, which are convenient for all the parents because they don't need to provide transportation. It all goes into a virtually extended school day and support for the kids learning and developmental stimulation in general.
In its efforts to thwart Bullis, the LASD board has helped it to innovate. LASD made an outpost of inadequate space over at the other Jr High school, 3 miles way, and told BCS to place 100 kids over there. and leave 550 at the original site. They'd have no access to the Bullis set up at the original Jr High to host the K-8 school. It would be quite a problem. So Bullis innovated and created the Bullis Center for Innovation and rotated groups of kids through the smaller space at 3 week intervals. That was hard on the parents but GREAT for the kids. An unintended consequence of LASD's board's efforts to cause problems. What can one say?
As for the add, consider that LASD does have considerable revenue per student. Decisions are made as to how to spend this money that are debatable, but the decisions are not vetted publicly. LASD has never offered Algebra I to 7th graders with the mathematical aptitude for it, although that has become common in the state. MVWSD involves more students in this program than typical. The follow on to that is to then offer Geometry to 8th grade students. As you know, MVWSD provides this too and LASD never has. This doesn't cost much, yet LASD has chosen not to bother. Only after a great deal of effort by a group of parents did LASD start to realize this was a shortcoming. Why? How did they miss this? Simiarly, some parents in LASD have requested the typical middle school grade grouping of 6-8 for years. This is not publicly discussed and there has been no committee to analyze this. LASD does keep it as an option, but it's the perennial option with nothing done. This cause a great deal of uncertainty as to how to improve school sites because more classrooms are needed at the Jr High sites to handle this. On the other hand, the Jr High Sites are 20 are acres each and only have 550 or so students, so they are large enough to add portables or build classrooms for 6-8.
One of the thing LASD spends its extra raised funds on is reducing the size of classes in grades 7-8. Core academic classes of Science, Math, Language Arts and Social Science are reduced down to a size of 20-23 students each. Why is this valuable? The 6th grade classes are in self contained classrooms taught by one teacher per class with a size of around 27 students per class. Isn't this inconsistent? Wouldn't it make more sense to go for 6-8 all at Jr High, changing classrooms for subjects, specialized teachers and a class size of 25-27? The sheer inconsistency of it is worth discussing.
Similarly, with little public involvement, LASD decided to introduce an extended day Kindergarten program next year, 830am-2:15pm instead of the 3 hour morning/afternoon split with 1/2 day programs 2 per classroom. This means 20 1/2 time positions become 20 full time positions for teachers, or a bump of 10 FTE. With that 10 FTE, LASD could have chosen to offer a Spanish instruction program to all of its elementary students. Having found the extra budget, shouldn't all potential uses of it been raised. One trustee said once that this would help compete with Bullis, but I don't see that. The few low income kids will benefit from the extended day program, but it will have no effect on others. I say, offer a preschool program for low income 1/2 day, and that will help the low income kids even more. As you know, this is the approach taken by MVWSD, except rather than 25 low income kids in K classes, MVWSD has 250-300 low income kids coming into each year's Kindergarten classes.
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