Wednesday, April 23, 2008

School Board executes $4.1 million in cuts


The Santa Barbara School Districts Board of Education took a big step toward restoring fiscal confidence to the district on Tuesday night when it cut nearly $4.1 million from next year’s budget.
While that may sound like a contradiction, the majority of the cuts stayed a safe distance away from students, focusing on small tweaks to areas such as insurance, energy efficiency, health benefits and worker’s compensation.
This scene was a far cry from the more than $2.5 million in cuts made by the board a year ago, which included slashing about half of the elementary school music program staff and cutting the majority of district funding for seventh and eighth-grade electives.
Shortly after these cuts were made, the district’s budgetary woes, which have been exacerbated in recent years by declining enrollment, came into full focus when the district discovered it actually had a $2.8 million surplus.
It took district leaders the remainder of 2007 and a portion of this year to figure out how much money they did have
and, in the process, Eric D. Smith was hired as the district’s deputy superintendent for business.
Since Smith’s arrival, district officials have sat at the dais with a posture of newfound confidence.
And while cuts to public education can be a gut-wrenching process to all involved, it appears the district once again has its balance.
“That’s the one positive thing out of this whole situation,” said School Board member Kate Parker. “That we are really making tremendous progress in bringing accountability to our business services department and great leadership.”
Parker said the cuts were anything but easy, but compared to last year at this time, the districts' front office appears to be on the right track.
With the cuts in place, Smith said the next step for the business office is to draft a balanced, multi-year budget that includes a state-mandated 3 percent reserve. The board will take a look at the budget at the end of May.
At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, the board began with a laundry list of 27 identified cuts totaling $4.7 million. That left them with $700,000 in padding.
About $3.2 million was cut with relative ease. Those cuts included adjustments to worker’s compensation and health benefits that saved a combined $690,000, while the elimination of 2.85 full-time administrative positions and a reduction of elementary administrative positions at smaller elementary schools saved more than $400,000.
But the more controversial cuts didn’t go as quietly and, at the end of the night, the board had cut all or part of 26 of the proposed cuts, making the story not necessarily about what was cut, but what was not cut.
The lone issue the board did not meddle with was a proposal to replace high school librarians with media technicians, which would have saved the district $108,285.
While librarians were saved, psychologists, special education aides, assistant principals and other administrators were not as lucky.
In special education, 15 instructional assistants will be cut, which will save the district $433,000.
The most heated cut was how best to staff San Marcos High School at parity with other district high schools.
As it is, San Marcos has about 73 full-time teaching positions while Santa Barbara and Dos Pueblos High Schools lag behind with 64.8. The cause of this disparity is due in part to a block schedule at San Marcos that requires teachers to instruct an additional course per year and as a result, keeps the student-to-teacher ratio lower than it is at other schools.
It’s not completely clear when the discrepancy began, and who if anyone is responsible, but as a result, San Marcos has about eight more full-time teaching positions than the other high schools, which totals $640,000 more in annual funding.
The board voted to chop this by $320,000, which would eliminate about five of those extra positions.
Because the staffing ratio has been weaved into teachers’ current contracts, it will require a vote by all San Marcos teachers before it can become final, Smith said.
If the $320,000 isn’t freed up, he said the board would have to look into cutting librarians and amending some of their other decisions.
The board saved about $286,000 by eliminating a long-standing practice to keep ninth-grade math classes small with a student, teacher ratio of 20-to-1. The ratio will now be 35-to-1. A class-size reduction for ninth-grade English classes will remain intact.
Parker said she’s confident restricted funding (money earmarked for specific purposes) can be used to help ensure math students who require extra tutoring get the help they need.
She said her decision to support English over math was based on the nature of the two subjects. She said grading math is less labor intensive, while English generally requires more attention by the teacher.
Going into this year, the district faced a $1.5 million deficit. But that number ballooned to more than $4 million after the state announced last January it planned to make a 10 percent, blanket cut to state funded services, including K-12 education.
If the state does impose these cuts, Smith said the district could face a $2 million deficit next year. By then, he fears the cutting process won’t be as seamless as it was this year.
“I think we did as good a job as possible with staying away from the personnel until we absolutely had to go there,” he said. “In subsequent years, we won’t have those margins to go around. I’m hoping we get some help down the road.”

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