Governor Jerry Brown is gambling that school board meetings like last night’s will scare Californians into voting for temporary tax increases. But the stakes of that bet are exceedingly high. As the deadline looms for the district to submit a fiscal report that shows how it can cut $5.8 million out of the budget in case the governor’s proposed ballot box tax increases do not pass in November, the Santa Barbara Unified School District trustees will have to make some tough choices.
At the meeting, Meg Jetté, assistant superintendent of Business, offered up a pupu platter of cuts. “You can play around with them as you choose,” she told the trustees. Her “menu,” as she put it, included nine items, among which were laying off up to 70 teachers, reducing 16 classified (or nonteaching) positions, reducing spring semester sections, reorganizing the district office, eliminating the use of contracted nurses, increasing ninth grade English class sizes from 25:1 to as high as 35:1, increasing K-3 class sizes from 25:1 to as high as 32:1, implementing nine furlough days (of which at least five would be instruction days, Jetté told The Santa Barbara Independent), and cutting “Tier 3” programs (which often provide services to needy students) up to 30 percent.
The cuts on that list add up to $11.6 million, but some would affect others. Furlough days, for instance would undo the need for class size increases and teacher reductions. Furthermore, the board last night voted to approve the layoffs of all temporary and some probationary teachers. Despite that approval, layoffs, class-size reductions, and furloughs must be negotiated with the teachers’ union.
Layne Wheeler, president of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association (SBTA), told The Independent that the union is opposed to cuts to staff and programs. He referred to a shortened school year as “draconian” but also said he is negotiating with the district in good faith and, at the meeting, expressed confidence that a compromise could be reached.
Board member Ed Heron actually advocated for furlough days — which would reduce teachers’ salaries up to 5 percent — reasoning that furlough days can always be added back to the school year if the budget improves, but laid-off teachers cannot be easily hired back in the middle of the year. Other board members voiced their support for different items on the chopping block, but nobody was enthusiastic about any of the proposed budget reductions. “I think yet again we’re in a situation in which they are all bad ideas, but we don’t have a choice,” said board member Monique Limón.
The board will likely hash out the details of the budget in piecemeal fashion. However, the district must turn in an interim financial report to the Santa Barbara County Education Office by March 17 demonstrating that it can meet its financial obligations for the current year and two years out while maintaining a 3 percent cash reserve.
Teachers must also receive layoff notices by March 15. The notified teachers are those with the least seniority. In reality, however, the budget is an amoeba-like organism that will change shape depending on state funding and negotiations between the district and the SBTA. If the governor’s ballot initiatives for temporary increases in sales and income taxes pass, they could generate $6.9 billion during the next school year. That will likely play a factor in how many laid-off teachers are actually hired back.
Further exacerbating the district’s fiscal wellbeing is the fact that the state has deferred 34.8 percent of the district’s revenue, greatly tightening cash flow. In other words, the state is not giving the district all the funding it has approved. As Jetté put it, “It’s like your employer saying you deserve $50,000, but we’re only going to give $30,000 this year.”