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Cautious high school district holds on to reserves

Conservative budget excludes earlier-reviewed behavioral health, other initiatives

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Despite talk of launching expensive new programs and spending down reserves earlier this year, the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District opted to take a cautious approach to the budget for the 2017-18 school year.

Last week, the high school district's board of trustees approved a spending plan for the upcoming school year that, by most measures, is a "boring" budget with little in the way of new initiatives, according to Associate Superintendent Mike Mathiesen. Small changes include about $500,000 in new retirement costs, additional teachers to keep up with enrollment, and a bigger pool of funds for updating and improving the district's technology.

The district expects to see another healthy increase in annual revenues -- $84.9 million for the 2017-18 year -- and adopted a spending plan of $82.9 million. During a board study session in February, board members considered whether a $2 million reserve fund ought to be put to use in the upcoming school year; spending options reviewed included a $500,000 behavioral health program, an initiative to reduce school avoidance, new classroom technology and capital projects like new classrooms and cafeteria furniture.

In the end, the district didn't include any of those initiatives in the budget, Mathiesen said. Some of the ideas were instead addressed within existing, already budgeted programs, but no new big line-item in the budget came from the study session.

One goal in this year's budget is maintaining the district's large stockpile of Chromebooks, which function as portable laptops for students at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools. Both campuses have a "bring your own device" policy (BYOD) requiring all students to have access to a personal computer for class work, and the district has to maintain thousands of Chromebooks for students to check out for the year.

Chromebook replacement is projected to cost about $250,000 each year, but the MVLA foundation has helped pay the costs, Mathiesen said. The district has budgeted $140,000 for Chromebook refreshment" for the 2017-18 school year. The widespread use of technology in the classroom means that the district also needs to spend more money on a robust WiFi network and better server infrastructure for its schools.

Although the district has seen major boosts in revenue for several years straight, signs are showing that it won't last much longer. Annual increases in revenue are expected to shrink in the next few years, Mathiesen said, and the state's economy has been on the upswing for an unusually long time. During Gov. Jerry Brown's revision of the state budget in May, Brown said the state was in the midst of one of the longest expansionary periods in California's economic history, and the state needs to start planning for a possible downturn.

This is reflected in the board-approved budget for 2017-18, which assumes that the state budget will stop giving out one-time discretionary funding to school districts. The state budget, which was signed by the governor last week, did end up including discretionary funding amounting to nearly $900 million.

Mathiesen said the district is also expecting the double-digit increases in annual property tax revenue to level off as soon as the upcoming school year. Projections estimate property tax growth will drop from 10 percent to 8 percent for 2017-18, followed by 6 percent growth in 2018-19.

The district's budget is still expected to stow away millions of dollars into the reserve fund over the next three years. Mathiesen said that reflects the district and the board's goal to maintain a higher level of reserves for economic uncertainty, and that the goal will be met by the end of the 2019-20 school year.

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11 people like this
Posted by Good Perspective
a resident of Rex Manor
on Jul 8, 2017 at 8:27 am

Mathiesen and Board are to be commended on keeping a level perspective and conservative approach in NOT adopting "flavor-of-the-month" programs just because there is a fund surplus. Stay focused and continue to fund only those programs that work, and prepare for enrollment growth if and when it comes.

School demographers are notorious for overestimating. Just look a LASD's past 10 year growth projections - LASD went down, not up. Only BCS is expanded...with many children from outside the district. I know, LASD has children from outside as well but they are turning most away these days due to other political issues.

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