This is getting depressing. After hacking roughly $12 million from its general fund over the course of the past four years, the Santa Barbara School Board was reluctantly back in the budgetary butcher shop this week, apron on and blade ready to cleave off yet another $6 million from its already ravaged $119-million operating budget. It took nearly five long hours Tuesday night, but the dirty deed got done, leaving in its wake, among other things, dozens of teaching jobs, school psychologists, maintenance workers, administrative positions, and summer school and home-schooling programs. As boardmember Annette Cordero characterized it before the cutting began Tuesday evening, “We trimmed the fat a long time ago. We are through the flesh and now getting to the bone … This is something that is going to be extremely difficult.”
A standing-room-only crowd was on hand as the board wrestled with reconciling Governor Schwarzenegger’s latest assault on California’s public education funding with the fiscal realities of running a 28-school and approximately 15,500-student-strong school district. It was the fourth time in the past calendar year that the board has been forced to make cuts due to the financial woes of the state budget situation, and as a result, very little of the cleaving came without pain. After a public comment procession of school psychologists, athletic trainers, health assistants, custodians, maintenance workers, and teacher union representatives — all of them basically lobbying to save their job or the jobs of the people they represent — the five-member board made a first pass through the menu of possible cuts laid out before them by the district’s Deputy Superintendent and bean-counting wizard Eric Smith. However, even with a menu totaling just shy of $8 million and $6 million in reductions needed, the first go at cuts proved anything but easy. The board, picking things like rebidding waste hauling services, getting rid of Nextel two-way radios at Adams Elementary School, seeking long overlooked waiver requests from the state for district property holdings, and terminating funding summer school programs, were able to come up with $745,000 worth of “noncontroversial” cuts.
It was during the second pass of the list that the hand wringing began in earnest. First up was a proposal to cut the health assistant position at every school and pass on the task of treating bloodied, fevered, sick, and otherwise medically afflicted children to school secretaries. With a potential savings of nearly $600,000, this was a big-ticket item, but ultimately the board decided the need for such professionals was too high and the potential downside too great to warrant an outright cut. Some six maintenance workers from the district weren’t as lucky, as the board eventually decided to slash one-third of the operating budget for routine maintenance at school sites and administration buildings. Unanimously bemoaned by the boardmembers, the move saved $1.2 million. Next up, two of the district’s 17 school psychologists were terminated, followed by a publicly popular decision to impose a roughly two-day work furlough for district and school site administrators.
But perhaps the evening’s cruelest cut — and easily the one most damning for students — came when the board decided to impose a class-size ratio of 34 : 1 for high schools (San Marcos, due its block scheduling, will be at 32 : 1) and 32 : 1 for all junior highs, while also imposing a minimum student-teacher ratio of 25 : 1 per class. Helping the district save $2.8 million, this move equals the firing of 38 full-time teachers. Though the class-size enforcement is anything but good news, it is important to note that thanks to funding from Measures H and I, things like art, music, and foreign language are protected, as is the district’s policy of have 9th-grade English and math capped at a 25 : 1 ratio. Nonetheless, as Smith explained, “There is no doubt this is going to force the junior highs and high schools to problem-solve their master schedules more than ever before.”
Speaking of problem solving, this latest rounds of cuts, as terrible as it was, may not be the last of the cuts for the School Board this year. According to Smith, not only is the board likely staring down roughly the same amount of required reductions this time next year; depending on the state budget revision this spring, it may need to return to the chopping block sooner than expected. “I know this is incredibly difficult,” said Smith late Tuesday night, “but we might be back here in May.”