Los Altos schools need Measure EAs the state comes closer to a financial meltdown, local school districts are struggling to insulate themselves from a worst-case scenario. This is certainly true in the Los Altos Elementary School District, which over the last two years has lost more than $4 million in state funding and could lose another $4 million — and possibly $5 million — for the next school year. Since 2006-07, state funding to the district has plunged from 14 percent to 5.9 percent of the budget and could be as low as 2 percent in the coming year.
This comes at a time when local property taxes, the district's main funding source, have been flat and next year are projected to grow by only 1 percent. Federal stimulus funds, which provided some one-time grants to the district, are not likely to be replaced due to current deficit-reduction mode in Washington.
The district saw the crisis coming and decided to ask parents and residents for help in the form of Measure E, a modest parcel tax of $193 — about $16 per month — a year that will help replace some, but not all of the lost revenue. The tax would raise $2.3 million a year, would remain in force for six years and could not be used for administrators' salaries. Senior citizens will be able to opt out of the tax, if they wish.
Of the just-over 4,000 students in the K-8 district, about 1,000 live in Mountain View. These families and all others in the district already are paying $597 a year for a parcel tax passed back in 2002, and another assessment for a bond issue that amounts to about $600 a year on a home with an assessed value of $1 million.
Another key revenue source for the district is provided by parents and others who contribute to the Los Altos Education Foundation. The foundation's annual gift to the schools this year is $2.3 million, a $500,000 increase over last year, which is made possible in part by parents responding to a request to contribute at least $1,000 student.
We agree with proponents of Measure E, who say they do not want to lose the formula that has made Los Altos elementary schools among the best in the area. For starters, district students score in the state's top 1 percent on standardized API test, just two points behind Hillsborough at No. 1. And despite this success, the district spends less per student than the average of the top 15 districts in the Bay Area ranked by API score.
And although the district pays its teachers relatively high salaries, averaging $75,000 plus benefits, Los Altos foundation officials say the pay is lower than nearby districts with high-ranking test scores. Retaining teachers who have spent years in the district and paying them a good salary is well worth the money, foundation officials say.
Management of the district is another high point, with Los Altos spending only 1.5 percent of its total budget on administrative overhead, or about half of what is spent by other Santa Clara districts and well below the maximum of 9 percent recommended by the state.
In this challenging time for public education, it makes sense to approve Measure E, a modest additional parcel tax that will help the district preserve its academic excellence and low class sizes. The mail-in ballot should have arrived to all households in the district. We recommend voting yes on Measure E.