Principal: No need to panic about budget

Dhara Yu, Author

The Palo Alto High School community should not be overly concerned about the potential effects of the current Palo Alto Unified School District budget deficit, says Principal Kim Diorio.

Due to an overvaluation of property tax revenues last year, the district is facing a $3.3 million deficit for the 2016-17 school year.

“I was here in 2008 and 2009 when we had some really big budget cuts because the economy tanked, and when we went through that we were cutting jobs,” Diorio said. “That was a much different budget shortfall. This [the current deficit] is nothing as dire as that.”

According to Diorio, one of the proposals put forward by Chief Budget Officer Cathy Mak for the 2016-17 school year to curb spending is to use money in the district bond typically allotted for refreshing school computers every four years for deficit reduction instead. However, Diorio noted that Paly still has sufficient funding from other sources to purchase new computers and technology if necessary, and therefore that any tech refresh policy adjustments enacted will have limited on Paly students.

“Our computers are all still pretty new, and we have money through PTSA and through some other buckets for refreshing our computers,” Diorio said.

Moving forward, there will likely be less of a need for desktop computers anyways, given that Paly has already adopted a bring-your-own-device plan for sophomores and juniors and could expand the program to encompass all students.

“As more schools move to a 1-to-1 type model, you would not need to refresh all those old computers,” Diorio said.

Diorio says that she will be working with the Paly administration, particularly Assistant Principal of Operations Jerry Berkson, who is primarily responsible for the school’s finances, to be more conscientious of spending in the coming year.

“We’ll be good at preserving our resources, not overspending and having fallback money if need be,” Diorio said.

On Tuesday, at its first meeting of the academic year, the PAUSD school board discussed strategies to address the deficit, agreeing to base its fiscal decisions moving forward on the most conservative five-year property tax projections. It will proceed according to property tax scenario C, which estimates that property tax rates will grow by about 4 percent over the next two years, and 3 percent for the remainder of the cycle.

Board members were split over whether to look for cuts in this school year’s budget. While Terry Godfrey and Heidi Emberling expressed a preference to proceed with a plan to resolve the deficit over two years, Melissa Baten Caswell and Ken Dauber stressed finding immediate reductions to district spending.

“I have been disappointed to this point with the lack of suggestions for cuts in spending for this year,” Dauber said. “Until we make a serious commitment to action, talking about spending a year from now isn’t really a plan.”

School board candidate Todd Collins emphasized the same point in his open forum address.

“I’m concerned that the board is not approaching this issue with sufficient urgency,” Collins said.

At the Sept. 13 meeting, the board will unveil the comprehensive list of areas to cut spending, and on Sept. 27, it is scheduled to make official the 2016-17 budget.