The Mountain View-Los Altos High School District is projecting a long and prosperous financial future, approving a rosy budget that’s on track to double the reserve fund in three years while keeping up with rising costs.

The good news comes after years of concerns among district administrators, who feared a big spike in enrollment could challenge the long-standing financial stability of the high school district. The latest round of enrollment projections shows that far fewer teens are showing up at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools than anticipated.

Mountain View-Los Altos is an anomaly in more ways than one, counter-balancing unusually high property tax growth with enrollment increases that tower above every other district in the county. On the revenue side, the district has benefited from 7% to 10% in increased property taxes in any given year, boosting revenue by more than 40% since the 2015-16 school year.

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With revenues expected to reach $98.5 million, Mountain View-Los Altos is the only one of the three school districts serving Mountain View that isn’t adopting austerity measures this year.

Along with the rising revenue, it hasn’t come without strain on the expense side as well. Enrollment has climbed from 4,028 students in 2015-16 to an estimated 4,464 students in the upcoming school year, requiring the district to hire new teachers at a total cost of about $160,000 per full-time position. Add in pay raises and rising pension costs, and the district is expected to spend $25 million more in annual personnel costs over the same period.

A report released earlier this year shows enrollment in Mountain View-Los Altos schools grew by a little over 17% from the 2013-14 school year to 2017-18, the highest percentage-point increase of any district in Santa Clara County. Campbell Union High came close with 12.4%, while most school districts saw enrollment declines. Public school enrollment across Santa Clara County has steadily declined since 2014-15, despite an increase in the county’s population, making the MVLA high school district an outlier.

Due to the state’s funding structure for schools, Mountain View-Los Altos does not receive additional funding on a per-student basis, making enrollment growth a liability rather than a blessing. The silver lining is that enrollment isn’t growing nearly as quickly as anticipated.

Last year, the district’s budget contained some pretty alarming assumptions. The number of students attending the district’s high schools was expected to jump by 401 in two years, hitting a high of 4,834 in the 2020-21 school year. Increased staffing to support those students would exceed $2.7 million in annual spending. Similar numbers were frequently cited by advocates for the 2018 Measure E bond as proof that the district needed more classroom space.

But the district’s latest budget, passed by the Mountain View-Los Altos board of trustees last month, shows those numbers were off by a large margin. Instead of 227 additional students in the upcoming school year, the latest estimates are now showing a more modest 70-student bump. Subsequent years’ anticipated increases have also flattened out, with 4,585 students anticipated in the 2021-22 school year.

The old numbers came from information provided by an outside demographic consultant, Jack Schreder and Associates, which provided high, low and “most likely” projections in future school years, according to Associate Superintendent Mike Mathiesen. The 227-student figure was the most updated and most aggressive projection from the demographic study, he said. Once the district got a firm handle on enrollment numbers for the 2018-19 school year, those future estimates came way down.

This comes as good news for the district’s bottom line. As a so-called basic aid district, Mountain View-Los Altos’ funding is not connected to enrollment, and a hike in student growth doesn’t come with a commensurate increase in per-student state funding.

“From a budget perspective, less dramatic enrollment increases help keep costs to a smaller increase because we are not hiring as much additional teaching staff,” Mathiesen said.

Even with the more modest growth projected in future years, Mountain View and Los Altos high schools are already cramped and tight on space, to the point where Los Altos High School’s former weight room is now home to two classrooms. In seeking to create more space for students, the upcoming school year is likely to be the beginning of a long construction boom at both campuses.

The school board quickly signed off on the first round of projects funded by the $295 million Measure E bond, which passed in a June 2018 special election. The first projects are for new classroom buildings at both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, which were supposed to start this past spring. The delay, Mathiesen said, is being caused by slower-than-expected approval from state regulators at the Division of the State Architect, which has been a common problem for school districts statewide.

Los Altos High’s new classrooms and small gym replacement is expected to cost $37.6 million. The Mountain View High classroom project was recently revised with more expensive estimates, and will now cost closer to $42.7 million, according to district documents. Next up will be the new student services buildings and small gym at Mountain View High, but the plans have yet to be approved by the board.

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