50 Students to a Classroom?

ETUSD May Have To Cut $300,000 More

Reported by Katy Penland and Patric Hedlund

Despite El Tejon Unified School District’s largely successful efforts to tighten its budget for several years in a row, ETUSD—like most school districts in California—is facing still more challenges.

It seemed Superintendent Shelly Mason was trying to sound reassuring at the December board of trustees meeting as she led a discussion about whether the district can meet its financial obligations for the next two years.

Mason painted a bleak picture, explaining that the district’s fiscal hands are tied until the California legislature “does something specific” to address a looming $43 billion deficit.

Frozen in a war of words, legislators have taken inadequate action in Sacramento to solve the crisis. Republicans are standing firm against the governor’s new statewide revenue measures, insisting on more budget cuts. Now economic hard times are converging with entrenched partisan debate to worsen prospects for the state’s school districts.

Mason said economists are predicting the state will not be in full economic recovery until 2013-2014, lowering tax income further under the existing state revenue structure.

ETUSD’s total annual budget is about $10 million. It is the largest local employer in the Mountain Communities.

School officials here reported there is little left to cut without affecting the classroom. Even the superintendent’s secretary position was eliminated two years ago.

Director of Fiscal Services Terri Geivet added that the projected district budget calls for an additional $300,000 in cuts, which cannot be accomplished without increasing classes to 50 students each and allowing currently restricted money to be used in an unrestricted manner.

“We know there are going to be cuts; we just don’t know what they [Sacramento] are going to let us do,” Geivet explained.

As a consequence, the budget can’t yet be certified as capable of meeting the district’s obligations.

Special Education Costs

Compounding the problem is the underfunded federal mandates to serve disabled students.

Federal special education guidelines were first passed with a promise that federal funding would cover “excess costs” of the initiative. The promised funds have never been delivered to the states.

Last year the shortfall between required services and the state/federal subsidies cost an $840,000 encroachment on ETUSD’s general education fund, Geivet said in an interview Monday, Jan. 5.

It costs $1.7 million to serve 180 students with a broad range of special education needs, from vocational training to assistance with severe disabilities. Most other school districts in the nation face a similar dilemma.

“The cuts [to next year’s school district budget] that we are now looking at are $300,000 to a million dollars,” Geivet said. “We’ve always lived within our means, but we don’t have reserves to draw from; I don’t know the answer.”

In the interview, the district financial manager expressed frustration with the gridlock in Sacramento.

“We all know the answer is in a number of things. If we need to increase taxes, then let’s get it done; if we need to make more cuts, tell us and at least we will know what we are looking at. The prior [state] budget was built on smoke and mirrors—they better start dealing with reality.”

Geivet said she thinks it might take constituents calling their representatives to motivate Republicans and Democrats to work harder on a realistic compromise.

School Nurse

Another agenda item was approval of a contract to hire Sharon Powell of Pine Mountain as a consulting school nurse on a part-time basis at $40 per hour until a full-time school nurse can be hired. Powell, formerly the district’s part time nurse, now works at the Frazier Mountain Community Health Center in Lebec as a physician’s assistant.

The search for a credentialed school nurse was complicated by the Southwest Health Care District’s requirement that its funding of up to $50,000 a year for the position can only go to a “local person,” Mason said, reporting that she’s “spent considerable time” trying to find someone who meets this criterion.

The needs “for hearing, vision and dental health screenings,” and especially “to meet special ed compliance” are critical, she said. “Evaluations can be done by a technician but still must be supervised by a fully credentialed school nurse,” so a short-term, interim solution must be found, Mason explained.

Anita Anderson asked whether The California Endowment could provide funding without the same strings attached, but Mason did not reply directly, repeating, “We have the funding; we just have to find the right person.”

Whether The California Endowment would require the district to hire only a “local person” was not discussed. It is a private health foundation that provides grants to community-based organizations throughout California.

This is part of the January 09, 2009 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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