Months in the making, the gut wrench of imminent-and substantial-budget cuts in the Santa Barbara School Districts got a whole lot more uncomfortable this week for the decision-makers. Compounded by the three-year, three-percent raise given to district teachers last month, the long-lamented problem of declining enrollment has-according to the findings of a recent interim budget report by the district’s new money czar, Ed Diaz-left the agency $1.7 million behind in the elementary district and $1.8 million in the red for the high school district, resulting in the district as a whole being millions of dollars short of the state-required budget reserve for the next three years. In a no-nonsense-if not downright depressing-presentation of some 26 or so potential cuts, Diaz told the board Tuesday night, “You need to come up with $3.35 million, and we are running out of time : The board needs to take action on this by next week.” Though far from being a surprise, the unavoidable cuts were certainly a bitter pill to swallow for boardmembers. Shaking her head at an overhead projection detailing various layoffs, program cuts, funding reductions, and administrative reshuffling scenarios, boardmember Annette Cordero was visibly distraught when she said, “This is tough-really tough-and I think we are all struggling with it.”
Anticipating the grueling gauntlet of slashing, the board already voted last month to issue pink slips to more than 30 “temporary” teachers. But it appears, in the wake of this week’s meeting, that those initial firings were only the beginning. The list of potential cuts includes, among other things, eliminating district support for GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) testing, cutting one or two teachers from the elementary music programs, doing away with junior high after-school sports, increasing the size of developmental reading classes, stopping funds for the Santa Barbara Community Academy, busing, and releasing a secondary administrator. Also included on the list is a plan to remove the class-size cap for ninth-grade English and math classes, which sets a maximum 20:1 student-teacher ratio for every high school in the district. Ironically, despite the sweeping and no doubt damaging impacts of the cuts, Tuesday night’s school board meeting was one of the least attended hearings in the last six months, with only four public comments on the subject. Noting the dozens of empty seats in the room, boardmember Kate Parker offered, “I am so disappointed that it is not standing-room-only with parents, students, and faculty members.”
Despite the doom-and-gloom forecast, boardmembers and Superintendent Brian Sarvis each expressed hopes for mitigating the number of cuts necessary, decreasing the severity of specific changes-such as the ninth-grade class-size increase-and for finding other ways of funding programs that may otherwise wind up on the final chopping block. While Parker inquired about the possibility of staggering the cuts-such as holding off on implementing major personnel decisions until the 2007-08 school year-in hopes of securing other money sources between now and then, Nancy Harter and Cordero asked that the board form a budget advisory committee that might find alternative ways to save money before the bulk of the cuts have to take place. Though he conceded that an advisory group was “long overdue,” Diaz downplayed the likelihood of significant other funding sources emerging, calling them “pie in the sky” possibilities.
Regardless of the hopeful thinking, Sarvis himself told the board, “These are painful decisions, but these are decisions that do have to be made.” To that end, boardmembers will come back on Tuesday, April 24, with their axes in hand-albeit reluctant ones-no matter if anyone is around to hear them.