Cutting School

Aides, counselors, music teachers, bus drivers -- everyone's hit by the state's fiscal fiasco


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Last week, Eric Grantz, superintendent and principal of Jacoby Creek Charter School District, sent a letter to parents with the latest bad budget news.

"Due to the financial state of the State it has become necessary to reduce our school budget by $182,000 for the 2009-10 school year," he wrote. "This figure is in addition to the $100,000 mid-year cut already enacted to our school's budget. I am being advised from the State that since the recent propositions failed, another $86,000 will be subtracted from current year revenues."

As a result, continued Grantz' letter, the school board had approved final layoffs, which include all teacher assistants, the technology assistant and the upper-grade art instructor. These are in addition to layoffs, approved prior to May 15 by the board, of the band instructor, the school counselor and the GATE instructor. (Grantz noted that orchestra and choir would not be cut.)

There was a bit of good news: Federal recovery money was hovering out there somewhere, and next year's enrollment looked positive. And, Grantz wrote, in traditional buck-up language, "... as with every crises there is opportunity and Jacoby Creek School will respond with fiscal responsibility and a narrow focus on our greatest needs. To the extent necessary we will employ a smaller work force, but with greater specificity."

The scenario laid out in Grantz' letter encapsulated, broadly, the situation being played out in schools district across Humboldt and the state. Having already slashed their budgets in February, school districts are preparing to slice wider and deeper following voters' May 19 rejection of Proposition 1B (and its attendant Prop. 1A, the rainy day fund creator), which would have begun a payback to California schools of $9.3 billion owed them under the 1998 measure Prop. 98. (Prop. 98 requires an annual increase in education spending, which hasn't happened lately). Now, as the budget deficit climbs, the governor is looking to cut about $5 billion more from schools and community colleges. Meanwhile, federal stimulus funds promise billions for education, but the money is intended for reform and recovery and not meant to make up for state cuts.

"We're all getting the same hit," said Grantz by phone last week.

Maureen Hester, business director for the McKinleyville Union School District, seemed despairing last week as she anticipated the next round of cuts. When asked how the budget crisis is affecting her district, she said, "You mean, 'How are we ever going to educate the kids of our state, and actually have them be successful as adults, when we're taking billions of dollars away from them every year?'"

Hester said that in the 2007-08 school year, her district spent $5,527 per student (the amount the district is paid per student based on average daily attendance). That has been cut to $5,377 per student for 2008-09. But if everything had been progressing as it should be -- that is, had the district's base revenue limit increased with cost of living adjustments from the state -- McKinleyville would have been at $5,842 per student for the 2008-09 school year.

"So the best way to put that is, we've already taken a $465 hit per child in our district for this year," Hester said. "And now, with the propositions not passing, we're going to take another $215 hit per child. So, that equals a total of $680 per child for ?08-09 that we've decreased by."

With one month of school left it's too late for layoffs, she said, because contracts are for the whole year. But the district had already taken some measures for the near-term. In December, anticipating cuts, the district put in place a hiring freeze and a spending freeze -- it is only filling positions that directly relate to safety for the students, like playground monitors, and is putting off maintenance, freezing block grant funds for new instructional materials and not buying anything else not necessary to the health and safety of students. It hasn't been enough. "We have had to use our savings to get us through the year," she said. "We are probably overspending by about $600,000 right now."

Next year will be worse, she said.

"The bummer about Prop. 98 funding is, when we take a deduction in the current year, that deduction rolls forward permanently," Hester said. "So, for ?08-09 I'm cutting a total of about $843,000 -- a little over 10 percent of our entire budget. And I'm having to roll that forward into next year, so that's 10 percent off of next year's budget. And then in addition to that, for ?09-10 we're going to cut about $1.1 million out of our budget."

In March, the district notified nine teachers they'd be laid off. The school board approved the final layoff of six of those teachers on May 13 (including some in the already pinched music program). Hester said, however, that three positions would have been cut anyway because of declining enrollment. And, she emphasized, class sizes will not increase dramatically.

"We're looking at every angle before increasing class sizes," she said. "And when we're talking about increasing class sizes at McKinleyville, we're talking about classes of 19 and 20 going up to classes of 22 and 23. We're not going to be at 30 and 35 in a classroom. Our goal is 25 being a cap, and we're working really hard on that."

The district also made an initial cut of some classified staff: 81 of the 114 positions district-wide. Seventeen of them will be coming back, Hester said, and she's hoping that eventually they'll be able to bring back 40 of them.

Maryliz O'Connell, fiscal account tech for the Fortuna Union High School District, said the district was faced with $350,000 in cuts for the ?08-09 school year.

"We immediately started cutting everything that we could think of that would first of all not impact the students directly," O'Connell said. "We stopped field trips and extracurricular activities. We did not spend any money on classroom supplies. We actually cut back on some of our bus trips, but we still have to maintain our home-to-school transportation. We stopped doing a lot of the maintenance. We had some purchases we had been planning to make, like computers and media-type things, and we didn't do them."

The district was unable to meet the $350,000 reduction -- electricity and water cuts ended up being impossible to achieve, O'Connell said -- and so now they're dipping into their reserve for $50,000.

"We will be reducing teaching staff by about five teachers [out of 56 district-wide], and we are reducing other staff members," she said about the coming school year. "We're reducing counselor services. We're cutting bus routes. And now we're waiting to see what else we may need to cut."

Everyone is still waiting for final word on final cuts for next year. And districts are unsure what sort of federal stimulus money they may end up with.

"This is uncharted territory," said O'Connell. "We've never been here before, and it's scary."

Hester, with the McKinleyville District, said it's a little too much to take. "I've been working in school business for 15 years, and this is definitely by far the worst that I have ever seen," she said. "I know that the intention at every school district is to stay as far away from [cutting] student programs as possible, but I think at this point in time that's impossible. It's impossible. Because you cannot take hits this large and not have it affect student education and student learning. You can't. And I wish that our state legislature could understand that."

Grantz, with Jacoby Creek School, said the most difficult thing with the elimination of teaching assistants there will be the reduction in one-on-one contact with the kids.

"It means the teachers will roll up their sleeves and do more work," he said. "It means we all do more work."


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