March 14, 2008

Budget cuts will affect all South Bay school districts

Part I

By Pablo Jaime Sáinz

These are not good times for public education in California.

The educational budget cuts proposed by the governor will have a profound effect in school districts, including those in the South Bay. By this Fall, teachers will be laid off, programs will be eliminated, and spending will be reduced.

All of these cuts, at the end of the day, will affect our children, the students at these districts.

La Prensa San Diego interviewed school district superintendents in the South Bay, including Southwestern College, to find out what their plans are, how the budget reductions will affect their particular districts, and how they will face these changes.

The second part of this article, to be published next week, will show how South Bay superintendents plan to work with each other to improve conditions in the area.

Manuel Paul, superintendent of the San Ysidro School District

La Prensa: How will your district face the state educational budget cuts? How will this affect students? 

Paul: Just like the rest of the districts in the state of California: Preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. We must give out lay-off notices and in our district we must cut 3 million dollars from our budget. But we are hoping just like the other districts, that both the Governor and the State Legislature can come up with a plan to help all districts. Students will be affected directly, in program reductions, after-school programs, enrichment programs, music and P.E. programs, transportation, and other areas.

  La Prensa: Your message to the community? 

Paul: That these are the worst times ever. As a matter of fact, in my thirty-three years in this profession never have we ever had to face cuts like these ones. To give lay-off notices to employees that may face the realities of losing their jobs, homes, cars, it is the worst thing a superintendent can face. Again, as I mention above, we are preparing for the worst because it is the responsible thing to do, but hoping for the best which is that the Governor and the State Legislature can agree on a budget solution for all the districts in the state.

Lowell Billings, superintendent of the Chula Vista Elementary School District

La Prensa: How will your district face the state educational budget cuts? How will this affect students?

Billings: California is facing a severe financial crisis. In January, taxpayers learned that a once projected state budget surplus was really a $6 billion shortfall. The fiscal problem is projected to be even greater next year—a $16-17 billion deficit. This month, school districts must update their multiyear budget figures based on those January projections given by the Governor. His plan is to cut $4 billion from education next year, which translates into $11 million less income than expected for our District. With 86 percent of our District budget dedicated to personnel, a reduction of this scale will inevitably impact our staff. Many new schools are staffed by the least senior employees and would be severely impacted by large-scale layoffs.

Our District must submit a balanced budget even though the state’s budget plans remain uncertain. To submit a balanced budget, procedural steps must be taken before we have all the needed information. We have a March 15 deadline to notify all certificated personnel of possible job reductions. This requirement forces us into a noticing (pink slip) process that is unnerving and demoralizing. In our District alone, 557 staff members will receive notices. This includes 401 classroom teachers. The release of hundreds of teachers and administrators is not a desired outcome. However, without clear state budget direction, we must plan for the worst case. This action is particularly frustrating given that the state legislature has the authority and viable options for resolving its budget crisis. With CSR at stake, we will be more impacted than other districts because we are the largest K-6 system in the state.

La Prensa: Your message to the community? 

Billings: Now is not the time for the state to start new billion dollar educational initiatives, to fund billion dollar textbook adoptions, or to operate billion dollar programs that are not core K-12 programs. Solutions to this budget challenge are at our doorstep but will take legislative leadership, focus, and courage. We are working with legislators, community groups, parents/guardians, and staff members to reach the best solutions possible for our students. But we must impress upon our state legislators the urgency of solving the state budget crisis now so that we can return our full attention to educating our students.

Dennis Doyle, superintendent of the National School District

La Prensa: How will your district face the state educational budget cuts? How will this affect students? 

Doyle: Over the course of this school year, our district has eliminated nearly $400,000 in expenditures from our General Fund. Most of that savings has resulted from vacant positions that have not been filled at the district office level. The Board of Education of the National School District will not be issuing any March 15 teacher layoff notices to teachers. We know that the final state budget that will affect all school districts in California must still be adopted by the legislature in agreement with the governor.

We recognize that all employees have the right to contact their elected officials in Sacramento to express their opinion about the proposed statewide cuts in education and we urge them to exercise those rights.

The National School District is doing everything possible to maintain low class sizes, retain our current teaching staff, and to continuously improve instruction for our students. We are working to keep potential cuts as far away from the classroom as possible so that we do not disrupt student learning.

La Prensa: Your message to the community? 

Doyle: The proposed state budget cuts in education are not a foregone conclusion. We all need to be active in letting the legislature and the governor know that there are viable options that can be taken to keep us fiscally solvent in California without resorting to the draconian cuts that have been proposed by the governor.

Carol Parish, superintendent of the South Bay Union School District

La Prensa: How will your district face the state educational budget cuts? How will this affect students? 

Parish: South Bay Union School District Board approved $1.5 million in reductions due to our continuing declining enrollment. We have decreased 20% of our student enrollment during the last seven years. These reductions included about 12 positions that will not be filled and fortunately will be accommodated mostly through retirements.

We project a need to reduce another $1.1 million (worst case scenario) if the Gover-nor’s recommended budget reductions for education are approved by the legislature. This coming year we know we will be able to absorb most of these reductions by using our District’s reserve funds which exceed the 3% required by law. If we did not have these reserves we would need to layoff up to 90 positions including class size reduction teachers and other school and district support positions.

La Prensa: Your message to the community? 

Parish: In South Bay Union School District we have one focus –student achievement. We are committed to dramatically increasing student test scores and have focused particularly the past few years on implementing our new approach to support English language learners. We want to assure all of our students and their families that when they leave our schools at the end of sixth grade they will be ready to participate in the rigorous curriculum in middle school and high school. We want our students to have access to the best colleges in the country and to be able to achieve any goal they set for themselves in the future. 

We are proud of our talented team of educators and continue to maintain our commitment to working with our wonderful families as partners in the education of their children so that our students can achieve these ambitious goals. 

Jesus Gandara, superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District

La Prensa: How will your district face the state educational budget cuts? How will this affect students? 

Gandara: We have tried our best to involve all stakeholders in brainstorming ideas for budget cuts that are as far away from the classroom as possible. But because we’ve cut nearly $20 million over the last 7 years, and because 87% of our $342 million budget is salary and benefits, the cuts are going to be a little more painful this year.

The Board of Trustees and I are committed to looking at every possible way of keeping all Sweetwater employees’ jobs. That’s why we immediately froze spending and hiring. That gives us flexibility to place people into vacant jobs or into the jobs held by people who are retiring. We created a special link on the district website to give everybody the opportunity to propose ideas for cuts. No idea was considered out of the question. As a result, our employees and community members created a list of 43 items that could be cut. They range from everybody taking a pay cut to reorganizing some offices to help save money. That list was then provided to all 7 employee unions and to a community-based budget advisory committee for their feedback and ranking.

The list with its rankings was presented to the Board of Trustees Monday. The list represents $26 million in cuts. While the district right now needs to cut $12 million, the list provides many options from which the Board of Trustees can choose.

It is my intent to take a formal recommendation of budget cuts to the board at the next regular school board meeting. We have tried to be as open and honest as possible, and we have tried to hear all stakeholders. As a result, we think we will be able to preserve all jobs.

La Prensa: Your message to the community? 

Gandara: It is important for parents, business owners and community members to understand the severity of this budget crisis. We are encouraging everybody to write, call or email their local legislators to let them know that education is too important to cut. The Sweetwater District is also looking at several ways of boosting revenues. We are looking at state and federal grants. We have also launched an aggressive attendance campaign. We are encouraging parents to send their students to school at least two more days each year. Not only is it important academically, the additional student days would translate to $3 million in additional funding to the district.

Raj Chopra, superintendent/president of Southwestern College

La Prensa: How will your Southwestern College face the state educational budget cuts? How will this affect students? 

Chopra: We will do everything in our power to make sure students are not affected by the looming budget crisis. The key here is to be creative and look for cost-cutting strategies outside of the classroom. Things like travel freezes and limiting training opportunities for staff are things that can be done. Lay-offs and the elimination of classes are things we will certainly try to avoid.

La Prensa: Your message to the community? 

Chopra: Southwestern College is committed to providing excellence through varied programs for a diverse range of students. We have spent the last four decades serving the residents of this region and look forward to continuing this tradition of excellence.

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