As reluctant as they were to make the trip, the rubber met the road this week for the members of the Santa Barbara School Board in their efforts to reconcile the district’s checkbook with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s historic statewide public education cuts. After nearly five hours of gut-wrenching decisions, public pleas for mercy, and confusing late-hour fiscal banter, the board approved more than $4 million in cuts. The blood of teachers, administrators, school psychologists, special education programs, and class-size reduction mandates dripped from the budgetary blade. “I know it doesn’t feel good, but we have to get there,” said boardmember Nancy Harter, speaking at the midway point of the April 22 deliberations and summing up the reality of the situation to her fellow boardmembers.
After deciding earlier this month to ensure that this year’s budget bloodletting would not come at the expense of the already hard-hit junior high electives, the district’s new second-in-command, Eric Smith, greeted the board with $4.7 million in possible cuts-a number that was made several thousand dollars more palatable thanks to 41 certificated district employees’ decision late last week to accept early retirement packages. A unanimous first round of money quibbles-which did things like increase school lunch prices, require students to make up every absence with Saturday school, and institute a Universal Breakfast program-got the board about halfway toward its mandated $4 million goal. However, after a subsequent and relatively uncontroversial vote imposed a 10 percent reduction in district discretionary budgets, reduced the total number of administrative positions at the district’s smaller elementary school, and saved the popular class-size reduction requirements for 9th-grade English, things took a turn toward the excruciatingly difficult. Boardmembers haggled over where the final million-plus in cuts would come from. Their choices included replacing retiring librarians with non-certificated “media technicians,” doing away with many of the elementary district’s health assistants, letting go five of the district’s 18 school psychologists, staffing all three district high schools at parity, and undoing the 9th-grade class-size reduction for math classes.
Despite trying to table some choices in the name of more research-a delay tactic that was quickly abandoned after Smith informed boardmembers that the county needed to see where the required cuts were coming from “tomorrow”-the board ultimately decided to stop the 9th-grade math class reductions. This move results in the elimination of roughly four teacher positions. The board also decided to reduce the number of school psychologists in the district from 18 to 16, to save the librarians, and to bring uniformity to the staffing levels of the district’s three high schools within the next two years. The latter, however, remained a potentially destructive wild card at the end of the hearing, as it is contingent upon ongoing contract negotiations between the district and the teachers of San Marcos High School, the only school in the district on block scheduling. That fact means San Marcos is staffed at a 31-students-to-one-teacher ratio, as opposed to the 35-to-one ratio at both Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara High. Parity at San Marcos, though not necessarily opposed by its staff, would equal the potential loss of as many as nine full-time teachers.
Hoping to spread this blowout during two years, the district and San Marcos are looking at a new contract that would slowly increase the student/teacher ratios. However, at the advice of Superintendent Brian Sarvis, the board voted that should compromise with San Marcos not be reached in the coming weeks, then the salvation afforded the librarians and psychologists this week potentially could be withdrawn. Acknowledging that already $2 million in additional budget cuts are being forecasted for this time next year, boardmember Kate Parker made prophecy of warning well before the San Marcos tradeoff had been made: “We already know that next year is going to be another big budget-cutting year, so things we save today could very well be gone tomorrow.”