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www.losaltosonline.com Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Community news for Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View since 1947

Budgeting for the future

Vol. 65 No. 6 • 50 cents

City fights ex-student’s lawsuit

Local school district officials grapple with a difficult financial process

By Elliott Burr

Town Crier Staff Writer

C

photos by Elliott Burr/Town Crier

Covington first-grader Tony Jin, above, listens to his teacher’s instructions for a math problem. Los Altos School District Superintendent Jeff Baier, below left, and Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Randy Kenyon pore over budget documents. The district faces a $4.7 million budget deficit annually through 2016.

By Traci Newell

Town Crier Staff Writer

O

ver the next few months, expect to hear and read about local school districts struggling to balance budgets that a state strapped for cash will surely slash. The Los Altos School District is especially vulnerable, facing a larger

deficit than the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District. But how much do residents really understand about why and how school officials make such cuts? The budget process can be complicated to comprehend, particularly when deep cuts are involved. See BUDGET, Page 6

Full steam ahead for new $193 LASD parcel tax By Traci Newell

Town Crier Staff Writer

A

pproximately 40 volunteers gathered last week to kick off the official campaign for the Los Altos School District’s measure that asks voters to approve an additional $193 in parcel-tax fees. The measure is slated for the May 3 all-mail ballot.

In an effort to provide a bridge during the dip in the economy, the district’s board of trustees voted unanimously Jan. 31 to approve the parcel-tax measure, which includes a senior exemption. If passed, the additional tax would last six years. “Our schools do an excellent job of providing a top-quality education for our children,”

Board President Bill Cooper said. “Unfortunately, the past few years have shown us that we can’t Cooper rely on state funding for our local schools. We need an additional, stable source of funding to help retain

our highly qualified teachers and keep our schools strong.” Parcel taxes provide school districts with funding that cannot be appropriated by the state. If 67 percent of voters approve the parcel tax, the measure would subsidize books and classroom materials, retaining teachers and preserving See TAX, Page 22

ity and high school district officials head to trial Monday to defend a false-arrest lawsuit filed in 2007 on behalf of a former Los Altos High School student. Police arrested then-freshman Cesar Enciso in February 2006 for suspected drug use on campus. According to court documents, Enciso claims he was sick, not drunk or high, when an officer and school Enciso administrators interrogated him in the school office. To prove his innocence, he agreed to a drug test, which proved negative. The prosecution claims that Enciso’s arrest lacked probable cause, while the defense maintains the officer acted lawfully. According to her deposition, the arresting officer, Los Altos Police Detective Susan Anderson, a school resource officer at the time, explained to Enciso that because he was a minor, he would have to be arrested before taking the drug test. Enciso alleges Anderson didn’t warn him of the imminent arrest before “kicking” his legs apart, cuffing him and taking him into custody. While Enciso – who, according to court documents, had no history of disciplinary action – alleged false arrest, invasion of privacy, battery and emotional distress, Los Altos See LAWSUIT, Page 5


Cover Story BUDGET From Page 1

The process Every January, local district officials begin the budget planning process for the following school year. After Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled his proposed state budget last month, district administrators began preparing for the worst. Although Brown vowed to limit cuts to education – aided by a possible tax extension on the June ballot – any changes at the state level usually occur later than school districts are required to submit their budgets to the state. “The governor’s proposal puts everything in limbo until after the elections,” said Joe White, associate superintendent for business services for the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District. “It doesn’t change how we forecast, because there are too many unknowns.” During each calendar year, the local high school and elementary districts work on two budgets simultaneously – closing the books on the current year’s budget and revising the next year’s. Districts are required to submit a final budget to the state in June. In recent years, the state budget has been submitted late, hindering the school districts’ progress toward closing the books on the current year. “We are having to take actions prior to knowing what the state budget is – prior to knowing what the outcome of our local tax election is,” said Randy Kenyon, assistant superintendent for business services for the Los Altos School District. Projections and updates from the state following the June deadline may require revisions to the current budget throughout the year, most significantly in December, March and May. The books aren’t closed on one school-year budget until after the next one begins – in September. In addition to planning the current and next-year budgets, district officials prepare a projection of the budget for the following three years. The elementary school district has a Citizen’s Advisory Committee for Finance, which helps administrators plan a six-year forecast. “We aren’t just being shortsighted,” Kenyon said. “We are looking for long-term solutions and long-term impacts.”

The budget timeline

• January – Governor releases state budget. • February – School districts prepare preliminary budget based on governor’s proposal. • March (early) – School districts prepare second interim financial report. • March 15 – Deadline for teacher layoff notices. • Mid-May – Governor issues updated budget projections. • May/June – Districts complete and adopt final budget by June 30. • July 1 – New fiscal year, California adopts its budget (if on time). • July – State finalizes assessed valuation of property taxes. • August through October – More realistic time frame for state to approve budget. • September – Districts close the books on prior year’s budget. • December – Districts issue first interim financial report for subsequent school year. Where does the money come from? The local elementary and high school districts receive the majority of their revenue from local property taxes. But there is some disparity in the amount of money each district collects – a big disparity. Because Los Altos is a community comprising mainly residential properties, which, in turn, create high enrollment, the district will receive approximately $25 million from property taxes this year. That accounts for approximately 60 percent of the elementary district’s revenue.

Page 6 / Los Altos Town Crier / February 9, 2011

photos by Elliott Burr/Town Crier

Covington School first-grader Peyton Barada, top, eagerly raises her hand in class. Covington teacher Kim Nero, above, reads to students.

The high school district, which serves Mountain View, Los Altos and most of Los Altos Hills, has a larger and more diversified area from which to collect property taxes. Mountain View, in particular, has many commercial businesses, which do not impact enrollment but do pay property taxes. The high school district this year will collect approximately $40.2 million in property taxes, accounting for 80 percent of its revenue. The high school district not only receives more revenue, but it has fewer students to spend it on than the elementary district.

Mountain View, Los Altos and Alta Vista high schools have a combined 3,683 students; the seven elementary schools and two junior highs have a total of 4,400 pupils. Kenyon said that California has fallen in per-pupil funding since California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978. California spends $7,920 per student per year, $2,580 below the national average. Proposition 13 amended the California Constitution so that property taxes can total no more than 1 percent of the assessed value. The initiative also capped an-

nual increases of assessed value at 2 percent. Properties that have been owned by the same person or business for a long period of time – like many in the Los Altos area – pay significantly lower property taxes than recent buyers. Kenyon said approximately 25 percent of households in the district pay property taxes on an assessed value of $200,000 or less. The sluggish economy hasn’t helped. The recent economic downturn has led to a drop in home values, and property-tax growth has slowed to nearly zero. In addition to property-tax revenues flatlining, the elementary and high school districts have taken a financial hit from the state, which cut an additional $1.5 million from the education budget. Because both local districts receive most of their funding from property taxes and not from the state, California has recently required them to take a fair-share hit against their revenues. Because the elementary district collects less money in property taxes and serves more students than the high school district, it has depended increasingly on parcel-tax income and donations from the Los Altos Educational Foundation. “One of our greatest challenges is figuring out how we convince the local community to help us financially,” Kenyon said. “Because of Proposition 13, the parcel tax is the only way we can get additional funds.” The elementary school district collects $597 per parcel, generating approximately $7.5 million annually. The educational foundation has supported the elementary district during the dip in the economy, pledging to collect $2.35 million this year to reduce the number of cuts to district programs. The Mountain View Los Altos High School Foundation committed to raise $850,000 this year to support classroom programs, tutorial centers, college preparation tools and more. Other funds come to the districts from the state but is earmarked for specific programs such as English language learners or special education. In recent years, to ease state funding reductions, California granted districts the flexibility to sweep some of the particular funds into their general funds. Looking forward While the high school district See BUDGET, Page 7


News Los Altos awaits direction for unsafe buildings By Elliott Burr

Town Crier Staff Writer

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recent newspaper article has rekindled concerns about the safety of buildings in Santa Clara County, including 19 in Los Altos, in the event of a major earthquake. The San Jose Mercury News Jan. 24 referenced a 2003 report by San Jose State University, “Inventory of Soft-First Multi-Family Dwellings in Santa Clara County,” which pinpoints residential buildings that have a “soft” first story – typically carports – and classifies them as a threat to human life. The article questions efforts to reinforce the structures identified in the past eight years. Los Altos officials said, however, the city complies with the 1989 state-mandated building code that requires reinforcing masonry, and

any push to better seismically retrofit soft first stories would have to come through Sacramento legislation. “It’s not that the city doesn’t care about public safety,” said Kirk Ballard, city building official. “We need to make sure we have the authority and the information is correct before we go implementing something. … Local jurisdictions can’t make people retrofit their buildings.” As of Monday, no legislation regulating soft stories is in the pipeline, according to Fred Turner of the Seismic Safety Commission in Sacramento. The survey, which said more than 500 Los Altos residents live atop first-floor soft stories, doesn’t identify specific addresses and admits that the “extent of vulnerability” would require “more detailed

engineering analysis … beyond the scope of this project.” Assistant City Manager James Walgren said the report might exaggerate the gravity of the situation. “It’s something we’ve been aware of for years,” Walgren said. “The report may overstate some of what we have.” David Kornfield, the city’s planning services manager and a designated emergency responder, said knowing the buildings’ locations helps in a disaster. “If we have an earthquake, we expect those buildings to be damaged,” Kornfield said. Knowing where they are “makes us more effective in responses. … I’m not aware of any requirements that require us to” retrofit them, he said. Contact Elliott Burr at elliottb@latc.com.

BUDGET

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has been hit with its fair-share of cuts, the state also cut funding for adult education. The high school district runs a robust adult education program but has had to cut funding in the past few years. White said the high school district has been using the state allowance of flexibility on categorical funds to finance adult education. The governor’s recent proposal extends that freedom for the immediate future. But White said the freedom to apply those funds in such a way would not last forever, so the district will have to begin deficit spending when the state removes the flexibility of those funds. The high school district faces a $735,788 deficit, which White said the reserve fund is easily able to absorb. The district has covered its fair-share hits through cuts outside of the classroom, by reducing classified positions and other areas of the budget. The elementary district has not been as fortunate. It has had to send out pink slips to teachers and classified positions for the past two years to brace for the worst-case scenario. Following the governor’s budget proposal this year, the Los Altos School District confronts a number of unknowns. The district faces a $4.7 million deficit – prompting the May request for an additional parcel tax. Because the district is carrying such a large deficit, it would benefit from some of the governor’s

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Elliott Burr/Town Crier

Covington School students Cheryl Tolomeo, from left, Mackenzie Fry and Taylor Nguyen participate in a PE activity. Programs like physical education have become harder for school districts to finance during the most recent economic crisis. proposals – such as an $8.8 billion tax extension. That will not happen without two-thirds support in the Legislature and subsequent approval from a majority of voters in June. Unfortunately for the district, administrators must notify teachers and other staff of possible layoffs by March 15 – meaning they cannot account for any potential additional funding from the tax extension or parcel tax. Cuts this year will indicate a worst-case scenario, Kenyon said. “The solution to our budget issues will come from a number of sources,” elementary district Superintendent Jeff Baier said. “A combination of expense reductions and revenue increases is how we hope to solve the problem.” In an attempt to control the dis-

trict’s current structural problem, spending more than it receives in revenue, district officials are in discussions with teachers regarding concessions they might make in their compensation and benefit packages. “We don’t have the revenues to keep up with our commitment to benefits,” Kenyon said. “We are working to make that a sustainable model.” Although the district will have to make cuts this year, Baier said administrators would not lose sight of providing quality education. “We recognize and understand very clearly that we have a responsibility to deliver an outstanding education, and that is going to happen,” Baier said. Contact Traci Newell at tracin@latc.com.

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