By Tim Hunt
Can Pleasanton school district afford another elementary school?Uploaded: Jul 6, 2017
Hurray for Pleasanton school trustee Mark Miller who asked his colleagues to investigate the costs associated with building another elementary school.
The district owns a site near Ruby Hill that is notable only for how inaccessible it is to most residents and their children.
The issue came up when the board was discussing the staff’s recommendation for issuing the first round of bonds that voters approved last year. Miller became concerned when interim superintendent, Micaela Ochoa, reported that the district likely would have to slice $3.2 million from its budget by 2020 to balance it.
That’s despite revenues that have grown consistently under Gov. Jerry Brown who has favored k-12 schools and community colleges as state revenues have grown. State spending on k-14 has skyrocketed from $47.3 billion in 2011-12 to $74.6 billion after the new budget took effect July 1. That’s a 58 percent increase over six years.
In each of his last three budget messages, the governor has cautioned that a recession is coming because the economy has been growing since 2009 and that’s an average of three years longer than the normal recovery—of course, in many areas it has been the weakest recovery on record.
For Pleasanton, Ochoa said that increasing pension costs would be a major financial concern. Unlike Pleasanton municipal employees, who negotiated contracts with the city that included both the employee’s and employer’s pension contribution (since changed), school district employees have consistently contributed around 8 percent of their gross pay to pensions. It’s controlled by state law.
The problem is that earnings estimates have consistently been quite aggressive when they should have been the opposite. The teachers’ retirement system, facing a $74 billion funding gap, started raising rates in 2014. Employer contributions are increasing from 8.25 percent to 10.85 percent, while employee contributions have climbed 2.25 over three years. The state’s contribution also has increased to 8.828 percent.
Contributions to the state system serving classified employees also are going up big time, as well.
Ochoa shared a slide with trustees that showed rates going up 154 percent for the teachers over seven years and 127 percent for classified employees. That takes the district’s share from $7.8 million in 2013-14 to an estimated $19.1 million in 2019-20.
The contribution increases are necessary to backfill the shortfall in the system, but it will be a painful budget hit for districts across the state.
Miller and trustee Valerie Arkin are right about spending some money now to dig into the elementary school and determine both whether it is needed (an open question) and more importantly can the district afford to operate it if it is built.
Patrick Gannon, the district public information officer, did some research at my request. The district estimated the cost of operating an elementary school with a principal, support staff and utilities would be $838,138 this year. That’s about one-quarter of the cuts necessary in two years.
Another elementary school may be nice, but it is far from necessary. The board must exercise fiscal restraint because facilities do not educate students—they are a tool.
The district welcomes it new superintendent, David Haglund, this week.
One long-time Pleasanton resident put the current state of the school district and Haglund’s challenge in perspective when he said, “The Pleasanton school district is a good district to be from.”
Once upon a time, it was a great place to be.
That’s the task facing David Haglund who is approaching the new job with a great attitude—labelling himself the “chief servant.” His priority is to do a lot of listening—a wise approach. He will be the fifth superintendent in the last three years that included interim stints by finance chief Ochoa and retired principal Jim Hansen.
What’s needed is a steady hand who can rebuild the culture so it’s a district where teachers and administrators alike want to be. The district has churned far too many principals in the last few years—many leaving for lateral positions.
Haglund will make $265,000 plus a $3,000 stipend for advanced degrees. He will earn plenty of time off—27 days of vacation plus holidays so that’s seven weeks off plus 18 days of sick leave.