With the gut wrench of potentially multimillion dollar budget cuts still six weeks away, the Santa Barbara School Board-this week eyeing the less-than-ideal fiscal future sealed by the recently adopted state budget- was forced to stop allowing out-of-district students into the district’s elementary schools. In doing so, the district managed to maintain smaller class size and save hundreds of thousands of dollars, but as a result kicked out students that, as boardmember Ed Heron put it, were once “welcomed with open arms.” Ultimately, it was a 3-2 board vote-Heron and Bob No»l objected-that upended the social and academic realities of an estimated 181 students in the name of fiscal prudence and an attempt to preserve the quality of education for the remaining 5,400 students currently enrolled in the district’s 10 elementary schools.
California public schools secure much of their funding one of two ways: either money from the state based on their average daily attendance (ADA) numbers or the basic aid option-a funding scheme in which monies are provided via property tax values within district boundaries. The latter has long been a desired means for the district, especially in these trying financial times, but it was not readily attainable-until now. Basic aid is only possible once property taxes generated, on a per-pupil basis, surpass the minimum amount the state is giving them for ADA. Only when current state budget woes reduced the amount of funding did it become financially reasonable for the district to obtain basic aid for the 2009/10 school year by shedding transfer students. (It should also be noted that, according to district staff, basic aid status would occur naturally by 2011/12.) Furthermore, based on district numbers presented at the board’s February 25 meeting, basic aid would not only prevent pink slips being sent out to an estimated 23 more teachers next month but it would also save about $650,000 next year. And, as Superintendent Brian Sarvis told the board and the public this week, “That is $600,000 in budget cuts we will not need to make this spring.”
Having mulled the idea of eliminating transfers since late January, the board, much to the displeasure of the majority of the standing-room-only crowd in attendance, ultimately decided to terminate all new transfers and to kick out all currently enrolled interlopers save for those enrolled in 6th grade next year, their siblings (though this hall pass expires after 2009/10), and all children of district employees. Also, at the behest of Heron and fellow boardmember Annette Cordero, the board voted to establish an appeal process for impacted families through which, on a case-by-case basis, some pupils may be readmitted. That being said, for families from places like Goleta, Carpinteria, Lompoc, and Ventura that have long been bringing their kids to Santa Barbara schools because parents work in the area or have other such ties, the door has been slammed in their face. And, for smaller schools, like the Open Alternative School, which gets nearly 30 percent of its student body via transfers, their sense of community may never be the same.
As for the aforementioned budget cutting process-an undeniable dark cloud informing much of Tuesday’s decision-district money guru Eric Smith was reluctant to say how much bloodletting would occur in April but explained that the final incarnation of the state budget creates fewer unrestricted budget shortfalls for the district than previously predicted: a $2.8 million deficit rather than the $4.3 million hole predicted in December.
Furthermore, while the state is also slashing restricted funding by about 20 percent, it has created flexibility clauses that could allow districts to backfill certain holes created by the cuts. Smith hopes this flexibility will keep the budgetary blade as far as possible from the classroom, thanks to a decision earlier this year to put a freeze on such restricted fund spending. “Sure it is bad,” explained Smith, “but it is not nearly as bad as it could have been.”