Class Size Relief in the 2016-17 Budget

As the school board sets budget priorities for the 2016-17 school year, it's important to prioritize spending that directly benefits students. In particular, I'm skeptical of spending more money on administration rather than on education. I want district staff to look for increased efficiency and for work that is no longer necessary, as an alternative to increasing headcount in the district office. (That's also why I worked to secure an additional $50,000 for direct mental health services to students for this year, as I report on below).

Class Size Relief in the 2016-17 Budget

Important priorities for new funding next year include full day kindergarten, support for high school athletic programs, and small learning communities at Paly and Gunn. A key funding priority for me for next year is class size reduction in middle school and high school. Smaller class sizes allow teachers to give more attention to individual students and to give timely, meaningful feedback on tests, projects, and homework. Smaller class sizes help students to be known by their teacher and fellow classmates.

At the last school board meeting, several parents from Jordan Middle School made the point that many classes are substantially larger than the district class size targets. Those targets are 24 students for math and English classes (and for all 6th grade classes) and 28.5 students for other classes. Based on their analysis, several more teachers would be needed at Jordan in order to meet size targets. JLS and Terman are also likely not meeting district size targets for each class. I and other board members asked district staff to bring back a proposal for additional teacher hiring to meet our standards. Superintendent McGee's current request for $375,000 for 3 additional middle school teachers -- to be allocated across all 3 schools -- will need to be increased in order to bring class sizes to district standards.

High school class sizes are also too large. The staff proposal is for increasing spending by $400,000 to reduce the average class size by roughly half a student at both high schools, from 28.5 to 28 students. That is a welcome start, but it is a reduction from the proposal in February to reduce the average class by 1 full student, at a total cost of $750,000. I favor restoring the original proposal, and if possible investing further in small class sizes.

These initiatives are made possible by an 11.26% increase in property tax revenue this year, which amounts to roughly $8.1 million over the 5.24% increase that had been budgeted. That increase, which is the largest in 15 years, represents an opportunity to make a real difference in areas like class size reduction.

The biggest remaining unknown for next year's budget is the outcome of negotiations with the teachers' union on compensation. Pay increases over the last several years have been substantial: 4.5% in 2015-16 (plus a .5% bonus), 4% in 2014-15 (plus a 2% bonus), and 3% in 2013-14 (plus a 1.5% bonus). For comparison, the Consumer Price Increase (CPI) for the Bay Area during those years was 2.2%, 2.6%, and 2.7%.

These increases followed 3 years during the recession of no increases to annual salary (although teachers did receive a 1% bonus in 2011-12). The CPI for those years was 0.7%, 1.5%, and 2.9%. However, teachers receive an average of around 1.5% per year increase from the "step-and-column" salary schedule for increases in seniority and educational credentials. In addition, the district's contribution to the teacher retirement fund is increasing by around 1.85% of salary each year over the next several years, under legislation passed in 2014.

Decisions about compensation are important because salaries are by far the largest component in the district budget. 85% of the district's $186 million budget is compensation, and each 1% increase in salary equates to around $1.4 million in additional wage costs. My approach to negotiations is to strive for competitive compensation for teachers and other district employees that is calibrated to the CPI and to the local labor market, at the same time recognizing that there is a tradeoff between compensation increases and the ability to afford programs like class size reduction, full day kindergarten, reopening elementary schools, and the like. Those, in turn, directly affect the desirability of teaching in Palo Alto, for example through class size and support for professional development.

$50,000 for Student Mental Health

At the February 23 school board meeting, I finally secured an additional $50,000 in spending authority for direct mental health services to students, after working on this issue since December. I wrote about this effort in an earlier blog post. I'm concerned that students lack access to counseling support when they need it, and that lack of resources in the community can leave vulnerable students without an accessible alternative. I'll continue to press for these funds to be expended to benefit students.

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