Taupier and Elsen discuss budget, potential cuts at community forum

In a community forum at Tam on Wednesday, January 22, district superintendent Tara Taupier and chief financial officer Corbett Elsen presented the current Fiscal Advisory Draft Recommendation to a crowd of about 50 students, parents, and faculty. The recommendation was designed by a committee composed of 13 district and school employees and parent representatives, and includes a number of proposed districtwide changes designed to mitigate the current budget crisis.

CFO Corbett Elsen explained the state of the district budget, including a list of proposed cuts, to a crowd of about 50 students, parents and faculty on January 22.

The recommendation comes after a combination of rising enrollment in district schools and growing state-mandated pension rates left the district $8 million in debt, a deficit which is expected to grow further. Measure J, the parcel tax which passed in November, will reduce the budget deficit by about $5 million over the next three years. But the parcel tax is a one-off deal, and ongoing initiatives will also be necessary to save the district from insolvency.

Several such initiatives, including a 25 percent reduction in school site budgets, have already been implemented. The draft recommendation that was presented Wednesday contained a number of others, which combined are expected to reduce expenditures by the remaining $2.9 million annually.

Notably, they include: “Net reduction in certificated staffing by staffing up to current contractual ratios,” which could prevent classes with less than 30 enrolled students from being offered; a reduction in “custodial, grounds and maintenance staffing”; the elimination of certificated librarians and UCSF athletic trainers; and a reduction by 50 percent of on on-site Bay Area Community Resources (BACR) services.

Part of a presentation created by Elsen. The outlined changes, if proposed and approved, would reduce district expenditures by $2.9 million annually. / Courtesy of Corbett Elsen

[See the slideshow Taupier and Elsen presented here.]

“This is not a task that anybody wants to undertake. We don’t take these reductions lightly,” Taupier said at the forum. “But given the fiscal situation we do have to make budget reductions and this committee has been incredibly thoughtful in their approach.”

Outrage over cuts to counseling service

At the forum, a number of community members expressed outrage over the potential cutting of BACR services, explaining that the program, which offers free, on-site counseling to students in stressful and often dangerous situations, is vital to students’ well-beings. The proposed 50 percent reduction would save the district $209,500 annually.

“There are countless studies that have been done that show a direct link to mental illness stemming from a lack of access to mental health services,” sophomore Jake Cohen said during the forum. He added, “A lot of students at this school and in this community can’t afford a therapist or mental health services outside of school.”

“There’s five of us staff members here at the school and we have a waiting list. We are fully packed. We see any kid who walks in, we get referrals — I won’t go further,” BACR staff counselor Mary Jane Landolina said. “I believe it’s a much-needed service, and if cut the students will suffer. It’s as simple as that.”

At the forum, sophomore Jake Cohen criticized the proposed 50 percent reduction of BACR services. BACR provides free, on-site counseling to students.

Taupier emphasized in response that the draft recommendation is not final.

“All I can say to you is that the committee went through a process and we will take feedback,” she said.

Other cuts: zero periods, athletic budgets, librarians

The presentation also addressed a number of other cuts that had been rumored to be taking place.

Classes which are currently zero periods — like leadership — will likely stay in their position. School and district administrators had previously floated the idea of incorporating those classes into the normal seven-period schedule, which would have caused scheduling conflicts for many students.

Taupier also said that although the Fiscal Advisory committee had considered forcing students to take no more than seven classes, they had decided against a hard limit. Instead, she said, citing stress levels as an additional factor, administrators and counselors would “encourage” students to limit the size of their schedule, although it was unclear how that would be done.

Tam librarian Melissa Bowman will see her position be eliminated if the cuts proposed by the Fiscal Advisory committee are approved.

Classes might also not be offered unless at least 30 students are enrolled, although Taupier said that would be subject to administrative discretion.

“Will we not run a class at 28?” she said, referring to students. “No, we’ll probably run a class at 28. But the idea is that we need to make sure that we’re fully maximizing our FTE.” FTE, or full-time equivalent, is a unit measuring the number of hours worked by a full-time employee.

UCSF athletic trainers, who provide students with medical assistance and other services, will likely be eliminated. The district is looking for less expensive alternatives, Taupier said. The proposed 10 percent reduction in athletic budgets will not result in teams being cut, but teams might not, for example, “replace jerseys as frequently as they do,” Elsen, the CFO, said.

And librarian positions will likely be eliminated. District libraries will remain open but will be staffed by library aides, who are not required to have the same knowledge as certificated librarians.

Anatomy of a crisis

At the forum, Taupier and Elsen were restrained in their responses to community members, and portrayed the proposed cost-cutting policies as difficult but ultimately necessary to the district’s survival. Both have worked for the district in other administrative capacities — previously, she was the TUHSD assistant superintendent, and he was the principal of Tamiscal, another district school — but did not hold their current positions until after the budget crisis had developed.

Some parents were furious at the district’s handling of its finances. Others made a point of thanking Taupier and Elsen for the work they have done in navigating the crisis.

“If you’re looking at the fiscal insolvency moving forward I would feel like we are in very good hands,” one parent said.

Before Elsen assumed the position, the district had no CFO, which is unusual given its size.

Superintendent Tara Taupier, who was appointed to the position last fall, is in charge of resolving a budget crisis she did not create.

When senior Lina Mizukami, a Tam News reporter, asked about David Yoshihara, the former district superintendent who resigned abruptly in June of last year, and who received a severance payout of $150,000, Taupier said that she was unable to speak for the actions of her predecessor, or about the circumstances of his departure.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Taupier said, adding, “It’s really easy to criticize somebody sitting in the seat previously and say, oh, they should’ve done X, Y and Z, but I wasn’t in that seat.”

Several students also asked why steps to attenuate the crisis, such as the proposal of a parcel tax similar to Measure J, had not been taken sooner. Enrollment data is publicly available and includes projections of class sizes three years into the future. Given that, students said, and given that increasing enrollment was one of the primary causes of the budget crisis, why was nothing done until last year?

Taupier responded that the TUHSD had been aware of the problem beforehand. But she said it was unclear whether a similar measure, proposed earlier, could have generated as much support as Measure J. (Before the 2018 election, the district hired a consultant to determine the maximum amount of money that Measure J could tax and still pass with the required two-thirds majority.)

“Could the district have been up for a supplemental parcel tax sooner?” Taupier said. “Sure. We don’t know if at that time it would’ve passed, we don’t know that it would’ve been $5 million — it’s hard to say what could have been when it hasn’t been.”

TUHSD board member Cynthia Roenisch, who was elected last November and was in the audience at the forum, added that parcel taxes in feeder districts also make it less likely that parents will support an additional parcel tax for the TUHSD. Roenisch served on the Kentfield school district board of trustees for 13 years and helped pass a parcel tax during that time.

Moving forward

There will be another Fiscal Advisory meeting later in January to review staff and community feedback, and the finalized recommendations will be presented to the board of trustees the following month.

Photos by Benjy Wall-Feng.