SMFCSD Budget and Measure Y Postmortem

“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate

Reality is complicated.  Understanding it and dealing with its challenges requires more effort than many are willing to make after a long day at the grind… but it is time for this community to wake up and address its challenges.

Around 50 people attended the San Mateo Foster City School District meeting last night to hear a discussion about the school budget prospects and to discuss a possible second ballot attempt at a parcel tax.  Following that session, 30 or so stayed on for an information session on becoming school board candidates.

Chief Budget Officer (CBO) Carolyn Chow went over the budget spreadsheets showing that the district is running a structural deficit.  The district is required each year to submit a balanced budget for the following three years.  The proposed budget on display last night failed this test in the final year while continuing to draw down reserves dramatically all three years.

The financial reserve requirement was lowered from the previous 10% (a level which had been called excessive by the teachers union) to 6%.  In response to one of my questions, CBO Chow indicated that the reserve level of 10% was below average for districts in the state (the average level is around 25% according to her).  The state requires a reserve of only 3%, but the CBO indicated that districts with only 3% reserve levels are often on the verge of state take-overs.

Sacramento is also shifting an increasing share of pension costs onto local district budgets as shown in the following slide.  Note the $1.5 to $1.7 million dollar annual increases in this spending category at the bottom of the slide.  STRS is the State Teachers Retirement System and PERS is the Public Employee Retirement system (for staff other than teachers).

Screen Shot 2017-06-09 at 5.55.21 AM

Board members do not know the STRS costs beyond this window but remarked that the trend is clearly unsustainable.  The above information and more can be downloaded from a link under agenda item 9.1 from the June 1, 2017 meeting.

Board members were glum, faced with the prospect of seeing all of the gains achieved since the “Great Recession” unravel.  A list of possible cuts was discussed, but the board did not make any decisions due to the need to study the matter more deeply.

I also learned through one-on-one conversations that the district and the teachers reached an impasse in the contract negotiations and are proceeding to arbitration.

Having held several meetings with district staff, I find that school financial information is so mind numbingly complex, given all of the rules and restrictions, that I have serious doubts about how many people truly understand the situation.  Questions asked of the CBO by board members reinforced this impression.

I can understand the temptation to throw up one’s hands in despair and run to an alternative like privatized charter schools in frustration, but the tales of corruption that one often hears ( see for examples) makes one wary of the “quick fixes” that are being peddled to our society.

When the meeting turned to discuss why Measure Y failed and when another ballot attempt at a parcel tax might be made, there were frequent anecdotes told about “friends who forgot to vote” and a consequent hope that, with a renewed push, a parcel tax could be passed.  However, deciding when such an attempt would be made was complicated by a number of factors which I will not detail here.

I hope that the community wakes up to the need to address this situation, but I am also worried that, besides voter apathy/forgetfulness, there are other problems and irritants that complicate the picture.

Frequent mention is made of how well-to-do our community is, but I believe that many of these well-to-do families, if they have purchased homes recently at the current outrageous prices, are already feeling overtaxed.  Also, as I stated during the comment section, our area probably includes many more lower-income people than those in attendance might realize, so deciding the optimum level for a parcel tax is not an easy issue.

In addition, one can not deny that there are ongoing issues that annoy parents/taxpayers.  For example, I spoke privately after the meeting with some teachers and board members about the parent complaints that I have heard the last few years regarding the poor math education at Borel Middle School.  Some students whom I have tutored had serious gaps in their math education due to the use of long-term substitutes to cover teacher shortages.  It doesn’t take a genius to realize the connections between this and the other problems mentioned above.  However, items like this are in the backs of voters’ minds when they make their decisions.

On the positive side, there clearly were many interested people at the meeting who appeared ready to step up to the plate and help.  Hopefully these sentiments will be turned into actions.

For those of you who do not have time to deal with these matters, I have one simple request:


In light of everything that is going on in the news these days, one wonders how many times we have to relearn this lesson…

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the Comments section below.

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired Ph.D. scientist, teacher (after retiring from industry, taught in private and public high schools and then worked a decade in my own private tutoring business), bioinformatician (managed both the NIH-funded GenBank National Nucleic Acid Sequence Databank and the BIONET National Computer Resource for Molecular Biology), IT director at Eos and Raven Biotechnologies, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist, and backpacker!

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