Members of the Santa Barbara School District were put on notice that they may have to cut as much as $10 million from their budget this year, as part of a legally mandated worst-case scenario planning exercise. That means that as many as 90 teachers — and who knows how many noninstructional employees— could receive notices by March 15 they may not have a job next year. Ten days could be eliminated from the school calendar, while the schoolday length is increased. Minimum class sizes might go up, while the number of credits required to graduate could be dropped from 240 to 220. Schools could find themselves cleaned every other day, as opposed to every day. Counselors could find their caseloads doubling, whereas health assistants — or nurses — could find themselves completely out of a job.
Every year for the past three years, the school district has engaged in similar forms of disaster planning. In those three years combined, the district has cut $20.5 million. Teachers must be notified no later than March 15 that they’re facing possible layoffs. The largest number of teachers notified in any one year was about 70. Not only is the number of teachers notified this year greater by 20, but teachers with 15-20 years of teaching experience could find themselves put on notice that their jobs are on the block. Because school budgets in California are documents of calculated uncertainty, it often turns out that the number of teachers notified vastly outnumbers the number actually laid off. This year’s uncertainty lies in two very big question marks. If those questions can be answered satisfactorily, it may mean that no cuts are required. But both answers lie largely outside the school district’s control.
The first is whether Santa Barbara’s elementary and secondary districts — legally and financially two separate entities — are allowed to unify, as has been proposed. For reasons having to do with the byzantine calculus by which school districts are funded per pupil, unification would generate no less than $6 million in revenues for the district. While no opposition has surfaced to the proposal, it must clear two bureaucratic hurdles — the County Committee on School District Organization and the California Board of Education — by July. If that doesn’t happen, the district will be forced to impose $6 million in cuts. The other question mark — worth $4.6 million to the school district — is the state budget. Governor Jerry Brown has proposed extending a tax increase enacted by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and hopes to put the matter to state voters in a special election this spring. Thus far, Republican legislators have refused all efforts to place the matter on the ballot.
Layne Wheeler, head of the union representing teachers, termed the proposed cuts “catastrophic” and expressed hope the school board can keep any cuts as far away from the classroom as possible. But Eric Smith — as close as a school fiscal officer can get to being a rock star — said that after having spent the past three years doing just that, it’s not clear how much more he can trim without doing significant damage to actual programs. “I could use a little luck at this point,” mused Smith. Many of the proposed cuts have to be negotiated with the teachers union, which has gone without pay increases the past three years in deference to harsh fiscal realities. In addition, last year teachers agreed to pay $1,300 more a year into their health insurance programs. “Right now, we’re looking at the worst-case scenario,” said school boardmember Susan Christol Deacon. “And worst case, every single school employee, every staff member, and every student will feel it. We’re not picking and choosing anymore; we’re doing it wholesale.”