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How the state budget shortfall will impact our schools

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One of the joys of working in schools is the predictable nature of the year’s rituals. In the fall, we greet new students and staff, attend volleyball and football games and watch seniors apply for college. In the winter, we enjoy concerts, drama, basketball, wrestling and a midyear break. The spring brings awards assemblies, outdoor sports, AP exams, state-mandated testing and graduation. For the last half-dozen years, we’ve added a new ritual: this one, the spring district presentation to staff on the impact of state budget reductions, is never fun. We are, of course, very aware of the serious national recession. Since schools receive 45 percent of California’s total state budget, we have to take our share of the necessary cuts. Here, I’ll share what the reductions you’ve been reading about mean to your local high schools. The February budget deal in Sacramento addressed two fiscal years. For this year (’08-’09) the Placer Union High School District had to cut $1,040,000 from our $40 million budget. District administrators, working with the board and our principals, scoured our books and made the necessary reductions. The impact will be felt by all district staff and students, but we will do everything we can to continue to offer an excellent comprehensive education. The cuts were made to textbook funds ($250,000), school safety communication systems ($100,000), peer assistance and review (teachers helping teachers — $27,000), a High Priority Schools Grant that supported Maidu High School ($40,000), a 5 percent reduction to school site budgets ($31,000), a reduction to categorical programs that are geared to certain student subgroups (English language learners, counseling, low income, etc.), and $250,000 from our ending fund balance, which is the amount remaining after we’ve budgeted all of our expenses against our revenues. These cuts take us through this June. Next year, we have to reduce our budget by an additional $2,140,000. This number comes from a loss in income due to declining enrollment, the continuation of the ’08-’09 cuts, plus an additional 5 percent reduction. First, since we’ve had a high number of retirements this year, we will not replace 10 retirees. This will save us $750,000 (our average cost for a teacher is $75,000, including benefits), and it will mean higher class sizes next fall. To help school districts adjust to these severe cuts, the state has eased the restrictions on several categorical programs. This allows us to take money that was once earmarked for a specific program (like class-size reduction in English and math) and spend it for normal operating expenses. With this flexibility, we offset another $558,000. We next turned to our facilities and maintenance area. We asked our director to reduce expenses by $250,000. To get to this sum, we have to reduce 2.25 staff members, eliminate some service contracts for our mechanical systems, and not do some of our normal maintenance. The next $350,000 comes from a reduction in all of our employees’ work year. All staff will reduce their salaries by two days, except administrators, who have agreed to a three-day reduction. Students will still attend 180 days, but our staff will have less paid time to plan lessons, work together to improve student learning, and to develop new curriculum. At this point, we are still $250,000 short of our target reductions. We have until June 30 to find the money and develop a balanced budget. Our staff is working hard to find savings, increase efficiencies, and to continue to serve all of our students well. After all, it is not the kids who created the problem. In the fall, 4,500 high school age students will be returning in pursuit of their diploma. In the Placer Union High School District, we’ll do everything we can to meet all of their needs in the classroom, on the athletic fields, stages and beyond. It is the reason we chose the profession. Of course, the failure of last week’s propositions means we will have to make new and deeper cuts. The governor’s most recent proposal means an additional reduction of $2.3 million over this same budget period. More people will lose their jobs, programs will be reduced and eliminated, but our mission will remain. Thank goodness we have our students to remind us of the potential for better times in the future. Bart O’Brien is the superintendent of the Placer Union High School District.