Coming down from a period of spectacular growth and booming budgets, the Mountain View Whisman School District adopted a budget earlier this month that mixes red ink with a large drop in per-student spending.
Even with school board-endorsed cuts to staffing and programs, budget documents show $7 million in planned deficit spending over the next three years. Despite concerns about a balanced budget, some of the cut staffing and programs approved in February were restored in the final budget, and trustees are already making a list for what else to restore if more money becomes available.
The budget for the upcoming 2019-20 school year, unanimously approved on June 13, includes deficit spending of just under $3 million, which was tempered by numerous cuts recommended by Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph. Fewer instructional coaches will serve the same number of classroom teachers, family outreach staff known as school community engagement facilitators (SCEFs) are getting cut and the districtwide summer school program will be eliminated. School support staff for at-risk youth are also being cut, in part because they were never budgeted as permanent positions, Rudolph said.
"These were only for one year, and they were always contingent on funding," he said.
A vacant administrative position overseeing special education will also go unfilled; Rudolph said the position was considered unnecessary. Bus drivers, maintenance staff, an accountant, a translator and an administrative secretary are all positions that were eliminated by the district's leadership in 2018.
Estimates in February show those cuts were supposed to bring 2019-20 deficit spending down to $1.5 million, but that number nearly doubled to $2.9 million in the months that followed. Textbook adoption that was originally postponed for two years made it back into the budget, which will draw from funds provided by the city's Shoreline Regional Park fund, and the new Vargas Elementary School will have its own designated librarian. The district had previously planned to rotate librarians from other schools run the Vargas library, an idea that was later rejected by the school board in March.
The budget assumptions do not include potential raises for teachers and classified employees, which added an extra $2.4 million in costs last year.
District spending has gone up significantly as property tax revenue reached staggering new heights, with annual double-digit growth for the last three years. Per-student expenditures have increased by 73% in the last five years, reaching a high point of $15,797 for the 2018-19 school year. Due to a sudden drop in tax growth and the round of budget cuts that followed, per-student spending is expected to sink back down to $15,003 in the upcoming school year.
The softening of the local economy puts pressure on the school district's budget in multiple ways. The district has sought to pay for the construction of Vargas Elementary School through developer fees, but when construction slows, so does the money. When developer fees dry up, the district has to dip further into lease revenue -- generated by leasing school sites to Google and a private school -- that would have gone into the general fund.
Although still deep in the red and far from the board's own stated goal of having a balanced budget by the year 2020, school board members reviewed June 13 a priority list for "reinstatement" of budget cuts, in the event that more money becomes available. Rudolph's recommendations called for bringing back districtwide summer school as a first priority, followed by at-risk supervisors, reinstatement of community engagement coordinators and rehiring instructional coaches for teachers.
Board members strongly disagreed with the priorities and essentially flipped them upside-down, arguing instructional coaches and supervisors for at-risk youth were going to have the greatest positive affect on students.
"For each dollar, what is the maximum impact we're going to have in terms of students and student gains, so we should frame (the priorities) along those lines," said board president Tamara Wilson.
Board member Ellen Wheeler also made a pitch for some type of after-school program for low-income families and working parents with children at Mistral Elementary. Earlier in the meeting, close to a dozen parents -- mostly speaking in Spanish -- urged the board to consider a program similar to the Beyond the Bell program co-sponsored by the city.
Mistral Elementary School, home to the district's Dual Immersion language program, used to have access to after-school child care through Beyond the Bell when it was part of Castro Elementary. By splitting the program off as its own separate school in 2015, those services were no longer available to needy Mistral families. About 44% of Mistral students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, making it the district's third-highest concentration of low-income families, behind Castro and Theuerkauf elementary schools.
Parent Bridget Harrison presented a letter on behalf of 200 parents urging the board to consider investing in an after-school program at the school, calling it a badly needed resource for families working full-jobs to stay in Mountain View. Mistral parent Imelda Moreno, speaking through a translator, said she worries children from low-income families need a supportive environment to play and do homework, many of whom live in small apartments.
Mistral did not qualify for a Beyond the Bell program, making it the only school with more than 40% low-income students without the after-school program. The alternative, the districtwide "Right at School" child care program, costs $480 each month, which is unaffordable to many of those families, according to the letter.
Board members did not take a formal vote on either the priorities for budget reinstatement or the after-school program.