Monday, February 04, 2008

Schools face cuts

Schools face cuts, Willows’ could be $1 million
By Sam Bhagwat
of The Valley Mirror

It’s chopping block time.

With declining enrollment and a governor’s budget proposing reductions of around $4.4 billion in school funding, Glenn County school administrators are being forced to mull what — and whom — they’re going to cut.

“Before the governor’s budget, we were looking at cutting around $600,000,” — mostly from declining enrollment, according to Willows Unified superintendent Steve Olmos. With the proposed cuts, he pegs the figure at $1 million.

That’s a lot of money — especially considering Willows Unified only has 1,760 children to spread the cuts around on.

And with around 85 percent of school districts’ budgets spent on salaries, says Hamilton High Superintendant Ray Odom, “you cannot make a reduction of this type without a cutback in personnel.”

Last year in Willows Unified, the four least-senior teachers were given notices that they wouldn’t have jobs this year. When senior teachers decided to retire, the district was able to retain them.

This year, says Willows Unified’s business manager Steven Rudy, about 15 to 20 teachers will likely receive notices.

Districts are required to notify teachers by March 15.

Chris von Kleist, superintendant of Orland Unified, says that unofficially, the district is already looking at a hiring freeze.

For Orland, Mr. von Kleist was more close-mouthed about what might get the ax, preferring to emphasize the fact that the final word hadn’t yet come out of Sacramento.

“All the lobbies, all the interest groups haven’t had a shot at him yet,” said Mr. von Kleist. “This budget will look entirely different by the time it comes up.”

“We’re not going to talk about cutting back programs at this time,” he said.

He also emphasized that the district had a reserve fund of money greater than the amount of possible lost funding this year.

“California is 42nd in the nation in per-pupil expenditures,” said Mr. von Kleist. “We used to be in the top three.”

Olmos said he’ll be bringing proposals to save money to a school board meeting on Feb. 7.

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Sidebar: How the funding works

Funding from Sacramento and Washington comes in two forms:

General unrestricted funds can be used for any purpose and usually go to pay for salary and benefits. This year, Glenn County schools receive $5,810 per student.

Categorical funds are allocated for specific purposes. For example, under Title I, Washington gives money to school districts with lower-income students for use on remedial reading, writing and mathematics programs.

While specially directed funds ensure that programs like special education are funded, there are concerns about flexibility.

Consider a hypothetical 10 percent cut in categorical funding. Willows Unified, says Mr. Olmos, would have to “make the cut across the board, instead of looking at specific programs.” It couldn’t, for example, cut one categorically funded program 20 percent and use the money to stem cuts on another program.

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Districts have to notify their teachers of being cut or non-renewed by a state-determined deadline in order to give them the option of not rehiring them the next year.

So that their employees aren't scouting around searching for new jobs late in the season, districts try to notify teachers whose positions will be in danger.

"We say we have every intention of keeping them, but they start looking for another job," said Hamilton High Superintendent Ray Odom. "I would, if I were them."

The strange part is the way the notification deadline works. The longer legislators bicker over funding, the more deadlines for school districts are moved backward in time instead of forward.

If a bill is signed in Sacramento before Aug. 15, the deadline is that date. But if negotiations drag on past Aug. 15, then the deadline moves backwards, to March 15, and the only notifications that count are the ones issued before that date.

So if the state budget was passed on July 30, upon discovering he wouldn't have enough money to pay a teacher, Mr. Odom could give her a notice on Aug. 1. But if on July 30, he fears negotiations will drag on past Aug. 15, and doesn't think he'll have enough money to pay a teacher, he'll still be stuck keeping her on.

As a result, any teacher who has a remote chance of being let go gets a notice on March 15.

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