Tough year for public education
Faltering economy, huge state deficit hit schools hard
A nationwide recession, combined with a $19.1 billion state budget deficit, forced local school officials to make some difficult decisions in 2010. Programs were cut, class sizes increased and positions were eliminated.
But despite the cuts, the show went on at Mountain View schools and Foothill-DeAnza community colleges.
Community members, along with local and national charities and educational foundations, chipped in, while two area school districts asked voters to approve two tax bonds — one was approved, one was not.
Elementary and middle schools
With about $3 million less to spend this school year, Mountain View Whisman School District made cuts to teacher benefits, raised class sizes, crafted a new district-wide bell schedule that allowed for a reduction in bus drivers and eliminated some programs entirely.
Target class sizes for kindergarten through third grade were bumped up from 20 to 25; GATE, the district's "gifted and talented education" program, will now rely entirely on parent support for funding; and, for the first time, next year it is likely that teachers who choose the lowest tier health care plan offered by the district will have to contribute to the premiums.
This year proved to be a delicate balancing act for Craig Goldman, the newly appointed district superintendent, who took over from Maurice Ghysels on July 1. Goldman started in the district as a principal and then served as chief financial officer, using his experience to make do during dire financial times. As 2010 drew to a close, he worked out a deal with the teachers union, getting them to accept certain cuts to their benefit packages in exchange for a one-time bonus of 1.5 percent and a base salary raise of 3 percent.
And even as programs were slashed, fourth- and fifth-graders in Mountain View schools were given the opportunity to go on one science and nature field trip sponsored entirely by the Palo Alto-based Environmental Volunteers.
Local high schools also had to confront budget cuts at the start of the 2010-11 year. The Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District's budget was down $2.8 million from last school year.
To make up for the gap, the district scaled back programs, including high school exit exam prep courses and some sports and after-school activities. In addition, office positions were eliminated, empty positions were left unfilled, a class aimed at helping teachers set up their websites was cut and the superintendent's annual budget was reduced.
On the bright side, voters approved Measure A, a $41.3 million bond, which extends the Measure D bond voters approved in 1995. Measure A funds will go to build new school classrooms and infrastructure.
The first of the Measure A projects broke ground at the end of November — a $7 million solar panel project at Mountain View High School that ultimately will help generate about 25 percent of the district's energy needs and earn millions of dollars in rebates from PG&E.
Next on the Measure A to-do list: a new pool at Mountain View High School.
Over the summer, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury issued a report recommending that three local school districts merge, estimating that consolidation of the Los Altos, Mountain View Whisman, and Mountain View-Los Altos school districts could save $9.4 million annually.
The recommendation was one of many similar proposals made by the grand jury for districts throughout the county, which would save money through "administrative staff reductions and operational efficiencies," according to the report.
However, administrators from both Mountain View districts doubted that they would ever come together to form a larger district.
While Craig Goldman of the Mountain View Whisman district, said his schools might benefit from a merger, he noted that the financially better off Mountain View-Los Altos high school district would not like the idea.
"There would be some fiscal disadvantages for the high school district," said Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View Los Altos.
Courses were discontinued, positions eliminated, pay packages downsized and faculty complained of being overworked at Foothill and De Anza colleges at the start of the 2010-11 school year.
"The state is broke and 90 percent of our money comes from the state," said Linda Thor, chancellor of the Foothill-De Anza Community College District.
This year, Foothill and De Anza colleges will offer 500 fewer programs than they did in the 2008-09 term.
To save money, the district eliminated 117 full- and part-time positions from the budget between 2009 and 2010. That includes five administrators, 11 faculty members and 101 other support staff. However, 39 of the support positions eliminated from the budget will be funded through June of next year using $7.7 million in reserve funds the district has set aside to help preserve critical positions.
But voters were not sympathetic when the college district placed a parcel tax on the November ballot.
The tax would have cost district property owners up to $69 per parcel annually for six years and, according to proponents, would have raised about $42 million.
Even though a majority of voters favored the tax, the measure did not reach the two-thirds vote needed to pass. Opponents said that administrators, faculty and staff ought to cut back salary and benefits packages before seeking more money from taxpayers.
Despite tough times, however, Foothill-De Anza was able to continue serving the community in meaningful ways.
Organizers had to scramble, but did come up with the money for the third year of the Math Acceleration Program — a free summer program that buses struggling math students to Foothill, feeds them breakfast and lunch, and gives them a three-week crash course in numbers. The idea is to keep kids on track in math, which the program's organizer called the "gateway to higher education."
The program scraped together $36,000 at the last minute, thanks to donations from various college departments.