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School Board Eyes Dismal Financial Future

State Budget Woes Threaten to Eliminate Millions


While the outcome of last week’s special state election may have sent an undeniable message to Sacramento that enough is enough, it meant something wholly different for the folks charged with balancing the budget of the Santa Barbara School Districts. The failure of the two public education-specific measures on last week’s ballot means the district is now looking at potentially having to make millions more in cuts before the end of June, despite painstakingly gutting $3.1 million from its general fund last month in order to balance the books, and also having cut $6.5 million during the prior two years. In a grim presentation to the School Board Tuesday night, the district’s deputy superintendent and chief financial whiz Eric Smith estimated that, based on the moving target of current state budget numbers, the board can expect a net loss of more than $5 million in revenue funds-about $1 million in the elementary district and $4.1 million in the secondary. “This is really bad news,” opined board president Kate Parker before Tuesday’s meeting. “I don’t know what it will mean for the students-I just don’t know where else we can cut.”

God forbid-I don’t want to make those cuts. : But obviously things are going to have to be put back on the table.”

Able to keep the vast majority of the cuts levied earlier this spring away from the classroom, the board is now fretting that it may be forced to rethink some of the popular programs and practices saved from the chopping block in April. Though they have yet to identify where exactly they will look for this new round of fiscal bloodletting, a quick survey of their most recent “cuts” menu shows things like further class-size increases, eliminating first-year athletics and athletic trainers, and making parents pay to have their kids bused to school as being, once again, on the verge of becoming a reality. Speaking prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Parker was noticeably troubled by the potential of slashing things that the board just last month went to great lengths to protect. “God forbid-I don’t want to make those cuts. : But obviously things are going to have to be put back on the table.”

In and of themselves, projected revenue losses generally spell a roughly equivalent amount in general fund budget cuts. However, according to Smith and Superintendent Brian Sarvis, three factors are working in the district’s favor. First, President Barack Obama’s stimulus package is expected to deliver millions in much-needed cash for the district sometime this summer. Though hard numbers are still unavailable, Smith estimates they could be looking at about $4.1 million in one-time federal funding; roughly $1.2 million for the elementary district and $2.9 million for the secondary schools. It is also important to note, however, that as of press time, there is the chance that the U.S. Department of Education may force the state to spend its education stimulus cash on backfilling cuts to California State University and University of California school systems before k-12 districts see any of it. If this is the case, the amount of money that ends up in Santa Barbara would be drastically reduced.

Secondly, thanks to a publicly unpopular decision by the board earlier this year to do away with out-of-district transfer students, the elementary district now appears poised to attain basic aid funding status in fiscal 2009-10. This quicker-than-anticipated source change- which essentially means funding comes from in-district property taxes rather than state funding based on average daily attendance figures-when coupled with the aforementioned Obama money, means the elementary portion of the district has the potential to, at least for the time being, avoid any major additional cutting.

Lastly, there is the chance that if and when the state budget finally gets signed into reality, it could actually cut less from k-12 than is currently forecasted. Pointing to these factors, Sarvis was optimistic this week about the less-than-ideal financial situation. “Our status quo is better than most. : We still think we can head off disaster,” he said. All told, Sarvis said after Tuesday’s meeting that, assuming state and federal numbers remain roughly where they stand right now, the district would be looking at about $1.5 million in additional cuts in the coming weeks with the “bulk” of them coming from the secondary district.

With Gov. Schwarzenegger scheduled to release his May revision of the state budget on June 8, the board opted to hold off on any specific discussion of cuts until its June 9 meeting. The board also set aside June 16 as a special hearing date to levy said cuts should the May revision warrant them. “We are just going to have to wait until [June] 8 and see what we get,” Sarvis said. “Then we will decide about the cuts.”

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