Local schools facing unsettling, unclear times

By: Loryll Nicolaisen, Journal staff writer
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Dire economic conditions are making for some unsettling changes at local schools. Foothill districts have doled out their preliminary lay-off notices, and although pink slips are nothing new, the number of those lay offs finalized by May 15 is something administrators are unsure of at this point. “In the past, the district has been able to hire back some of the teachers given pink slips,” said Michele Schuetz, Auburn Union Elementary School District superintendent. This year, “we just don’t know now,” she said. Schuetz said district officials hope to have a better understanding by May of what next year’s budget might look like, but that the budgetary forecast could become even worse, depending on the outcome of the May 19 California special election and how ballot measures may affect the state budget revision. Schuetz said Auburn Union had to release nine temporary employees and issued 15 lay-off notices to classroom and categorical teachers, including a Title I teacher, fifth-grade band instructor, classroom teachers, a Title I counselor and Spanish instructor. “It was pretty extensive for us,” she said. “We laid off for the worst-case scenario because we don’t know what the May revise will look like.” The Placer Union High School District’s situation is different because nearly a dozen teachers were retiring anyway. Dave Horsey, Placer Union assistant superintendent of education services, said 15 with temporary teaching positions have been notified that their contracts end with the school year, which is standard procedure each year. Horsey said administrators have yet to determine what cuts, if any, will occur in classified staffing. The district received 11 retirement letters from teaching and counseling, and no pink slips were given to teachers. Schuetz said Auburn Union is pursuing multiple cost-cutting measures, including contracting with another district for nursing time and examining ways to conserve energy and monitoring utilities at the school sites. “We’re looking at everything that was plausible,” said Ken Nittler, who served on the district’s budget advisory committee prior to his appointment to the board of trustees earlier this year. One focus is on Average Daily Attendance, or ADA, funding. Nittler said the district is currently at 95 percent, meaning that 95 out of every 100 students come to school on any given day. It’s important for parents and guardians to know that a missed day of school means the district misses out on funding, roughly $44 per pupil per day, Nittler said. It’s also important to get kids to school on time. “You’ve got to be in your seat that first period or you’re marked absent,” Nittler said. “It really is critical that the kids get there on time so they’re counted.” If the district can bump its percentage up even a point, to 96 percent, that means roughly $124,000 for the district, at its current enrollment statistics, Nittler said. Another change for the 2009-2010 school year is to detour from the state’s Class Size Reduction program, which implements a student/teacher ration of 20-to-1 in kindergarten through third grade. Schuetz said school site administrators and teachers have been told to plan for a 24-to-1 ratio for next year. Schuetz said the district would save some $155,000 because, while they will take a hit for every class exceeding the 20-to-1 ratio, the savings comes in the form of teacher salaries. “It is our goal to keep our classes as small as we can,” Schuetz said. “We just don’t know until the May revise if it has to go any higher than that.” Foresthill Union School District is also making changes in the classrooms, cutting class-size reduction at the third-grade level, bringing the ratio from 20-to-1 to either 25 or 26 third-graders per class, said Jim Roberts, district superintendent. Lysa Sassman teaches 20 first-graders at Rock Creek Elementary School. She’s preparing to teach a class of 24 next year. “It’s made a huge difference to the amount of attention an instructor has been able to give a child,” Sassman said of smaller class sizes. “It is going to make a difference,” Sassman said about the increase of students in her classroom. “It’s just less of me to go around to each child.” Rock Creek kindergarten teacher Amanda Jaqua doesn’t even know if she’ll have a classroom to come back to next year. Jaqua, who celebrates her 27th birthday Sunday, received a pink slip earlier this month, her fourth in four years of teaching at Auburn Union schools. Jaqua said she knew it was coming, “but it’s still kind of discouraging to get that.” And while she appreciates knowing school and district administrators want to retain as many pink-slipped teachers as possible, it’s still an uneasy time for Jaqua. “It’s nice to hear that they want me to come back and I want to come back. It’s just sad that there’s nothing we can do about it until we get the budget worked out,” she said. “My life is kind of on hold because of this. It’s kind of scary.” Jaqua and her husband bought their first home in October. “In the back of my mind I’m thinking, are we going to be another statistic?” she said. Even with all the uncertainty, Jaqua said she’s trying to finish the school year on a high note, and is doing everything she can to prepare her kindergartners for first grade. “I try to be a really positive person, and part of that is knowing I need to set a good example for my students,” she said. “When school’s over for the summer, that’s when I can start worrying about me. I’m trying to be in the mindset that I’ll be back here, doing what I’m meant to do.” The Journal’s Loryll Nicolaisen can be reached at