Wednesday, August 20, 2008

School leaders outline upcoming year


Money, gangs, cell phones and home schooling were a few of the many issues discussed by Santa Barbara School Districts officials yesterday during a briefing with local media about the upcoming school year.
Though a number of complicated issues will come to head this year in the district, including two parcel tax measures, the fate of which will be determined this November, one of the most noticeable differences in district morale yesterday compared to last year, is school officials’ relative calm when discussing budgetary matters.

Since hiring new Deputy Superintendent of Business Services Eric Smith last fall, the district’s checkbook appears to be balanced. Part of that balancing act came after the board made $4.1 million in cuts earlier this year.
While that’s hardly a pleasant number to dwell on, it appears to be more settling than last year’s fiscal scenario. It entailed the unearthing of a $2.8 million surplus just months after the board of education executed $2.5 million in cuts. The discrepancy left Board of Education members baffled and about $500,000 of the cuts was restored.
The general feeling, it appeared at the time, was few if any at the district offices knew exactly how much cash was in the bank. It took the hiring of Smith, combined with independent audits to nail the correct numbers down.
But it appears a sense of stability has been restored at district headquarters.
“The bottom line is we have a secure budget despite the state budge,” Smith said. “So we think we’re in a good position to go into this year as well as next year, we just need to be prudent with what expenditures we make.”
As the state budget stands, Smith said $2 million in cuts anticipated for next fiscal year won’t have to be made, due to restored funding at the state level.
Because the district employs nearly 2,700 employees, any cut is difficult to keep away from people.
As this summer approached, the district mailed out 45 layoff notices. However, due to retirements and teachers taking leaves of absence, District Superintendent Dr. Brian Sarvis said all of those people were re-offered jobs. He said retirement levels were so high, 45 additional teaching positions became open.
When asked how many fewer teachers the district would employ this year compared to last, Sarvis said he wouldn’t know for certain until everyone is hired and the school year begins.
In order to help keep class sizes low and offer music and arts programs, which often fall by the wayside in tough economic times, the board of education voted to place two parcel tax measures, one each for the elementary and high school districts, on this November’s ballot.
The elementary district tax, which does not yet have a name, would levy a $27 fee that would start July 1, 2009, and run through July 1, 2012. According to the resolution for the measure, the money would be used to supplement math, science and technology education and offer classroom music programs.
The high school district tax, which is also unnamed, would assess a $23 fee that would run on the same timeline as the elementary tax. It would be used for similar programs, but would also include supplementing foreign language courses, restoring ninth grade math class size reduction and supplementing music, arts and theater programs at the junior high levels.
The proposed high school tax is slightly lower than the elementary tax because there are more households in the high school district, which includes all homes from Montecito to Goleta.
Because Montecito, Goleta and other small pockets on the South Coast have their own elementary districts, the elementary tax would essentially be restricted to homes in the Santa Barbara city limits. As a result, some parcels would be assessed both taxes.
Sarvis said these measures are the first of their kind for the district, and are necessary in times of fiscal uncertainty at the state level.
“We want more than what the state can provide us in these areas,” he said.
Associate Superintendent of Education Robin Sawaske gave an update on a new home schooling program, which has already enrolled 90 students, 70 percent of whom have migrated from other districts.
She said the home schooling program is a one of a kind, in that four full-time teachers have been hired to provide as much direction as the students need. She said the program is a great service to parents who want their children home schooled, and has so far attracted students that add to the revenue stream for the district.
“It’s a lot more organized than many home school programs,” she said.
Sawaske said the home school program will likely be capped at 125 students and will be staffed to ratios similar to other schools.
When the bell rings this Monday for the first day of school, students will have to hang up their cell phones for good. The districts will begin enforcing its cell phone ban, which aims to restrict use of the phones to emergencies.
Districts Director of Student Services and Compliance Michael Gonzalez said the phones are a constant disruption in class, and the amount of time wasted with cell phone distractions is high.
“We’re hoping our parents and young people understand there is a time and place for cell phone use and it’s not in school,” he said.
To address a sharp spike in gang violence over the past year and a half that has left three young people dead, Sarvis said he’s hopeful the Board of Education will green light the hiring of several gang intervention specialists. He said these specialists would work at the schools part of the time and in the community the remainder.
The Board of Education gave mixed reviews to the prospect of hiring specialists last week, fearing the estimated costs, which are roughly $66,400 per specialist, is too high. Some board members said they would support a pilot program that would entail hiring a couple of specialists.
Gonzalez said hiring gang specialists is crucial to ensuring gang violence stays off Santa Barbara campuses. He said Santa Barbara schools have remained relatively safe despite the fact that many of those allegedly involved in the killings are junior high and high school students.
Sarvis said gang specialists working in the schools are one of the most noticeable shortcomings of an ongoing collaborative community effort to stem gang violence.
“We think this is the big hole in the network right now and we’re not alone in our thinking,” Sarvis said.
The superintendent pointed out that so far, the district has been lucky the violence hasn’t spilled over onto campuses, and that’s the way he wants it to stay.
More information about the parcel tax measures and other school-related news is available at

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