For public schools it's back to basics

The yearly budget cuts season is now in full swing in Redwood City, and everywhere else in our beleaguered California school system. Budget cuts have been a yearly occurrence, with Redwood City making cuts in 8 of the last 9 years. But this year is special: the usual reduction in funds from the State of California is combined with the lack of a new stimulus from the Federal Government. Last year's stimulus funds allowed our district to save half of the programs slated to be cut. The district had made a long prioritized list of everything that could conceivably be cut, totaling around 10 million dollars, and around half of the items were saved by the stimulus. This year, no stimulus and even less money from Sacramento means we're facing cuts between 5 and 10 million dollars.

This last week I attended one of the parent meetings with district officials. Jan Christensen, our superintendent, tellingly started the presentation by describing what schools were like in the eighteen hundreds. Think of the school in "Little House on the Prairie": one big room, full of kids, one teacher, bare bones, no special programs, no frills. The message seemed pretty clear: for next year and on, think "back to basics". We'll continue to have public schools, safe clean places for learning. We'll continue having devoted, heroic teachers, striving to teach our kids to the best of their abilities. And our kids will learn, just like they did back then. But that's it. We can no longer expect from the public school system those features we've taken for granted for so long and which have been vanishing in front of our very eyes these past few years.

My daughter started Middle School this year. Last year there was an extra period with cool "enrichment" activities: art, dance, drama, even TV production. Last year's cuts did away with many of these, so this year's 6th graders did not have the same options as their predecessors. Year after year we see programs removed. And it hurts. The knowledge that my second daughter, only 2 years younger than her sister, will have a poorer education experience is hard to take.

So, what are the cuts our district will very likely have to make this year? First, here's a list of the School District's priorities, as outlined by Jan in the meeting:

  1. Student achievement. Keep the students learning. Prepare them for high school where they'll be competing with kids from more affluent school districts.

  2. Safety. Provide a safe, clean environment for learning.

  3. Compliance, Rules and Regulations. The District needs to comply with a large set of rules and regulations if it wants to keep its funding from the State and Federal Government.

  4. Solvency. The School District cannot run deficits and is required by State law to maintain a 3% cash reserve.

Unfortunately solvency rules this year. The district already spends around 85% of its funds on salaries. The required cuts are so high again this year that we won't be able to avoid reducing the work force. So, what do I think we'll be cutting?

  • Everything we did not cut last year from our prioritized list of possible cuts. This includes the GATE program, IB program, music in the middle schools, outdoor education and much, much more, nurses, psychologists, support staff, etc.

  • The school year will be shortened by 5 days. This is one way to save money without laying off teachers. I assume it will happen in spite of opposition from the Teacher's Union and us, the parents. (Note that a proposal to cut the school year by 5 days this year was already rejected by the Teacher's Union).

  • Class size reduction will be over, everywhere: all schools and all grades. All classes will have 31 students. Fewer teachers will be needed to teach the same number of kids. Kindergarten classes with 31 kids will hurt those kids that don't arrive prepared with Pre School experience. Tragically, teachers won't have time to make sure no kids are left behind. The benefits of small class size, specially in the first few years are well understood.

  • Fewer administrators, resulting in lower levels of service. Principals will be required to take on other jobs, the district office won't be as responsive as before. Administrative processes will suffer. There will be slower turn around times for non emergency services.

  • Closing a school site. There's serious discussion of moving Orion to Roosevelt and renting out the Orion campus for extra revenue. This could happen as soon as next year.

What good things can we look forward to then? Here's a list of possibilities, in decreasing order of probability...

Creative Gimmicks. The District can figure out ways to save programs through creative gimmicks. An example: if we could make all our schools eligible for Title 1 funding we could raise an extra million, possibly more. Note that all but 4 of our schools qualify for Title 1. I'm no expert on this and I'm sure it's rather complicated, but if we can reshuffle our student population and get enough money to save music, PE, etc, it's worth considering the option. I don't know if this could work, but I assume there are more gimmicks we can come up with.

Private Funding. The Redwood City Education Foundation works really hard to raise money and pay for programs the school district cannot afford. RCEF would need to very substantially increase the level of private donations to be able to save a number of the very significant programs on the chopping block. Saving music in the middle schools, for example, requires 200K and the foundation raises around 350K per year, destined to other essential programs. Grants are always a possibility, but unfortunately grants typically focus on establishing new programs rather than on maintenance of existing programs.

Parcel Tax. Prop 13 established the 2/3 super majority requirement to pass a local parcel tax measure. In Redwood City we already tried twice and failed to pass modest parcel taxes. In both cases the YES vote hovered above 60%. Joe Simitian has been working for years on a law to lower the requirement for parcel taxes to 55%, constantly being blocked by the republicans in Sacramento. This time around there's an initiative to add to the November ballot a constitutional amendment to do just that: the Local Control of Local Classrooms Funding Act. Let's hope we can get it there and it passes.

Constitutional Convention. The 2/3 requirement to pass a budget in California has made the State impossible to govern. As most of the money for public schools comes from the California general fund, our funding woes will continue until we can reform our government away from its current dysfunctional state. This needs to happen, but I'm not holding my breath. Note that parcel taxes cannot make up for the funding we receive from the State. The Parcel Tax we failed to pass last year would have provided 2.3 million in funding, a fraction of the cuts we expect this year alone. If the State of California is serious about its public schools system, it will have to raise taxes to pay for them. The 2/3 requirement makes this impossible.

A new stimulus package from the Federal Government would be ideal and would directly save jobs right now, in our local community. It really is too bad that Obama has turned away from the plight of local communities, instead opting for the symbolic but ineffectual gesture of promising a freeze in non military spending starting a year from now. For us on the front lines of the crisis it's all going to be about coping.

The question then is how to cope with schools that can offer a lot less. One answer that works: increased levels of parent participation. Our K5 school in Redwood City, Orion, requires parent participation from all parents. You sign a contract to work 72 hours for the school per year, either in the classroom or outside the classroom helping teachers prepare, grade, etc. Orion parents help the teachers in many ways and help run many activities that would otherwise be impossible. In the next few years implementing an Orion Lite model in other schools might help mitigate the effect of the coming reductions.

Parents also need to understand that the days of free public schools are over, if they have not figured this out already. Our schools already need money for the most basic things. And if we want anything extra we need to pay for it ourselves. If you're devoted to the idea of public education, high quality and available to all, and you can afford to make a monthly donation to your school, this is the time to do it. Private school already costs hundreds of dollars per kid per month. Donating a fraction of that, say $100 per month per kid to your school's PTA will have a real impact in the quality of your child's education.

And I can't avoid ending on a sad note. The constant cuts, the programs that disappear before our very eyes, the yearly shock to the system will make people who can, run away from our school district. Some leave for private schools, some leave for our neighboring Basic Aid districts. This is already happening and it breaks my heart to admit that the present situation forces all of us, at least in the backs of our minds, to consider the possibility.


  1. Thanks Hernan for taking the time to write this excellent overview for those of us who couldn't make the meeting.

  2. As always, Hernan, I enjoy your postings from meetings. You always have an excellent grasp and ability to convey very complex information.

    One thing that is unclear to me is that I was under the impression that class sizes may increase, but only to the highest level allowable under the class size reduction guidelines so that the district isn't disallowed to continue in the class size reduction program in future years. Maybe that's no longer the case, but that was my understanding a few weeks ago. So I am a bit confused about what you've posted here in regard to class size.

    georgia jack

  3. Great overview. For parents that are indeed considering making the monthly donation to your school as Hernan suggests there is a nonprofit called Adopt-A-Classroom that would allows you do this in an accountable and tax-deductible way. Anyone can make a donation to a teacher through (even if the teacher isn't registered yet, you can simply type in their name). When you adopt a classroom, 100% of the funds goes to the teacher and because Adopt-A-Classroom is a 501c3 nonprofit, it is also tax-deductible for you.

  4. Nice job, Hernan!

  5. Very well said. Thank you.

    And I couldn't agree more with the value of and need for increased parent participation, not only in our schools but in advocacy. I completely support moving more schools towards an Orion-like model. Students simply do better in schools with high levels of parent participation. When our children see us involved and concerned about their education and well-being, that has tremendous immediate and long range value above and beyond pure academic instruction.

  6. Hernan, thanks for blogging. You're a really great reporter! I have been missing the meetings but I hope to make it to tomorrow's.

  7. Hernan, if there was a way I could get every RWCSD parent to read this particular blog, I would not hold back. I agree with and advocate for a more structured parent participation requirement in all of our schools. I've been teaching Art in Action for the last three years, this year at two grade levels. I also started as a Music For Minors docent this year, teaching music to 4 kinder clasrooms and 1 First grade class. I can not even begin to tell you and your readers how rewarding is for me personally. We have 105 kinders this year, I am getting to know 84 of them. They all know me. I really believe every parent should be involved at some level with their child's school, even if it means just doing some light office work. Every little bit helps.

  8. I was brainstroming this evening with another parent from our school. Yes, the reality is public school is not free. Yet we can not charge tuition because public school is supposed to be free of charges. But our state college system is supposed to be free as well, but students have fees to pay. Use that concept, except treat those fees as charitable contributions. EVERYONE has to contribute to the system. What if that system were run by the RCEF and all the PTA/PTOs from each school in the district? They collect these charitable contributions ($100 per month per child). Then RCEF/PTA/PTO send out thier annual thank you letters that also acts as the receipt for the contribution, which the donors get to write 100% off their tax return. So yes we may pay someting out of pocket, but we get to claim the contribution on our tax returns. I would think if you approached the community as a whole and they each got thier donation letter to go against any tax liability, they would make the donation. Correct me if I am wong, you can not claim private school tuition as a 100% tax deduction, nor can you claim your property tax as a 100% tax deduction. However, most charitable contributions are realized as a 100% deduction. I could afford this. It wouldn't kill my budget, plus I would get to claim it back at the end of the year (on my tax return).

  9. As soon as the everyone HAS to contribute to the system, it no longer qualifies as a charitable contribution. To be tax deductible it must be a freely given gift with no expectation of direct benefit to you or your dependents.

    Also, if you itemize deductions you already are deducting the school tax portion of your property taxes.

    Ex-IRS Revenue Agent


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