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.