Going into Tuesday night’s Santa Barbara School Board meeting, one thing was certain: The children of our community were guaranteed to be the big losers in what was sure to be a full-scale assault on the district’s budget. The beans were spilled earlier this month when the district’s money guru, Ed Diaz, told the board that their new contract with the teachers’ union would necessitate some $3.35 million in cuts in order for the budget to meet the required three percent reserve.
A laundry list of cuts was presented to them on April 17, and this week they came to the meeting with their axes in hand, focused-albeit regretfully-on trimming the budget. After three-plus hours of gut-wrenching deliberations, deep breathing, and long pauses of awkward silence, the board levied the required budget reductions-a task that resulted in, among other things, the termination of at least half the elementary school music program staff, the gutting of two-thirds of district funding for seventh- and eighth-grade electives, the elimination of a secondary school administrator, ending district support for junior high opportunity courses and busing for Santa Barbara Community Academy students, as well as killing the Curriculum Council in both the elementary and secondary schools. Closing the hearing, Superintendent Brian Sarvis remarked of the somber proceedings: “This has been an agonizing process. No one wanted to make any of these cuts.”
As bad as it was, things could have ended up a lot worse Tuesday night. Pleas from the public, several teachers, and Sarvis himself ultimately led to the board saving the popular 20-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio that all ninth-grade English and math classes in the district enjoy, not to mention the 36 full-time teacher jobs that would have been lost had that particular item been cut. Furthermore, some tedious-though no less bloody-whittling allowed at least some funding to remain intact for popular junior high electives like journalism, foreign languages, art, orchestra, and choir. However, perhaps the evening’s most brutal moment came during one of these whittling sessions when the board decided to save only one half of the two-teacher elementary school music program. With both teachers present at the meeting, the narrow vote was a de facto pink slip for one of the women-a fact that seemed to be lost on the boardmembers at the time of their discussion. Once the votes were cast, one of the women stood up, visibly straining to contain her emotion, just as Board President Nancy Harter, perhaps realizing the harshness of what they’d just done, exclaimed, “Yikes! That sucks. I’m sorry.”
Trying as best they could to keep the cuts as far away from the children as possible, the board-led by trustee Bob No»l-entertained a number of creative options not indicated on the staff-generated 28-item proposed cuts list. Though he probably didn’t earn himself any friends by doing so, No»l unsuccessfully proposed that the district do away with its full-time public relations person, not hire a replacement for Assistant Superintendent Jan Zettel when he retires later this year, and that the boardmembers themselves no longer receive salary or health benefits for their jobs. Though the ideas would have added more than $150,000 to the budget, they were all soundly defeated by 4-1 votes. The boardmembers did eventually approve cutting their annual salaries in half, putting a much-needed $12,000 back in the pot.
“I think all of us are taking a hard swallow tonight in order to move forward,” explained Harter early in the meeting. And while the bulk of the heartbreaking work to be done was accomplished this week, the need for the board to make additional cuts next fall remains-and even then, the district is far from being out of the big, bad fiscal forest. As Sarvis said, “Making it to the three percent reserve doesn’t make it a particularly healthy budget by any means. It only meets the minimum requirement.”