An interview with Burlingame Superintendent Christopher Mount-Benites

Lincoln parent Greg Powell interviewed Superintendent Mount-Benites on November 12, 2020. This is a transcript of their conversation, which was edited for clarity and brevity.

Greg Powell: Thank you so much for your time today. I know you're very busy given all of the craziness surrounding COVID-19. Could you give a brief background about yourself so parents in the district can learn more about you? Superintendent Mount-Benites: This is my 27th year in education. I'm a career public education guy. I'm from rural New York, in the Finger Lakes. I did my undergraduate degree in upstate New York. And that's where public education attracted me, mostly because I was extremely unhappy with what public education was providing to me as a student. And so it was suggested to me in undergraduate that the best way to do something about that is to get involved with the system. And so education was one of the undergraduate degrees I pursued, as an educational reformer. I wasn't certain that I was going to teach at that time. I wanted to be more on the policy and reforming side of it. I ended up teaching high school for 10 years, I taught both social studies and English. And I taught for the state university of New York. I taught history and literature for summer session for the university system for a number of years. After New York I lived in Los Angeles for about 10 years. It was in Los Angeles that I became a principal. I've been a principal of both the elementary level and the high school level. Being a principal is one of the most involved and exhausting jobs that I've ever done, which is why I tend to have a bias towards site leadership and principals, and empowering principals to make their sites as exceptional as they can be. Aside from the teacher in the classroom, interacting with their learners, the most profound changes and culture comes from the site leader. Greg Powell: So what's the biggest challenge that you think the district faces right now? Superintendent Mount-Benites: I think there are two. The biggest challenge that is the glaring one that's in our faces every day is COVID. The struggle that we're having in Burlingame and that everybody in the peninsula or everybody in the state is having right now is "how do we get back?" Because that's what the state's telling us. We have to have a plan to get back. Which means that the other issue, which might actually be even more complex, our financial situation, isn’t getting as much attention. We're one of the lowest funded districts on the entire peninsula on a per pupil basis. Our funding equates to about $8,500 per kid. That's if they show up for a hundred percent of the time. And if the County collects enough property taxes to provide us with a hundred percent of that, then it's called basic aid. If they don't collect enough property taxes to provide a hundred percent of that, then we're called a LCFF district and the state has to come back and provide us with the remainder to get us to $8,500. And that's what we are. We're a LCFF district, whereas the majority of districts in San Mateo County are actually basic aid districts. If the County collects enough property taxes from your school boundaries to equal a hundred percent of your basic aid, that's no different from what you get from the state. But if they collect more than the school district actually gets to keep the additional amount. So we get $8,500 because we only get the state's basic guarantee per student. The school district next door might get $20,000 per student. Being LCFF is not unusual for the majority of districts in the state of California. There are a thousand districts in California. Only 85 are basic aid. The thing that feels so weird about that on the peninsula is the highest concentration of those basic aid districts in the state of California is in the peninsula and Silicon Valley. So we are just one of the few districts in the entire area that is not basic aid. Greg Powell: Housing prices around here are so high. How can it be that we're not collecting the $8,500 per pupil? Superintendent Mount-Benites: We also have separate high school districts, which is really unusual. So the money that's collected from Burlingame is split between the high school district and the K-8. And the amount that K-8 gets is less. Our high school is probably one of the wealthiest districts in the state of California. But the elementary school district is a LCFF district. The only other LCFF districts in the peninsula right now are us, San Carlos, Ravenswood, and then Millbrae falls in and out. The biggest reason for that from a finance perspective is that the businesses in Burlingame are still being grandfathered into Prop 13. They pay 1% of the value of when the business was built. And so as those businesses get handed down, the assessed tax value doesn't go up. So if a business has been running for 30, 40, 50 years, which a lot of ours have, the amount they pay in taxes never increases. Greg Powell: Will property taxes ever raise more money for Burlingame schools? Superintendent Mount-Benites: My projection is that seven years from now, the County will collect enough taxes to meet the minimum requirement that we're entitled to. And then maybe five or 10 years after that, it will have grown enough that we start getting more per student. Greg Powell: Why is this coming up now? Superintendent Mount-Benites: We've never gotten rid of anything. If we have a grant and it pays for four people, then the grant expires in three years, then what? We just kept everything. And so we found ourselves having far more expenses than we do revenues. So we need to decide: here's the stuff that's really key to our identity of providing more than just an adequate public education in Burlingame. That's the stuff that we want to fundraise for. And I'm very open to that conversation. Greg Powell: If you could wave a magic wand and get funding for one thing, what would it be? Superintendent Mount-Benites: We want to maintain the excellence in the quality of the education our kids are getting. Steam labs for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. I would think particularly given the geographic location that we live in, that these are key to our students being successful in the world. Greg Powell: Thank you so much for your time!

Additional Resources:

  • Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). Why is education funding so low in California, despite its wealth and comparatively high tax revenues?

  • BSD Multi-year Projection Budget at presented at the November 10th School Board Meeting

Greg Powell is a marketing executive and Bay Area native who, along with his wife Alison, have two boys at Lincoln Elementary. They have lived in Burlingame for over 10 years.

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