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School board looks at ways to cut budget

About 40 Merced City School District workers could receive pink slips next month as part of a plan to save the district from a potential $3 million budget shortfall.

"Our revenue, of course has been greatly reduced," said MCSD Superintendent Terry Brace during budget student session at Tuesday night's board meeting. In a district where 90 percent of funds are spent on salaries, he added "personnel becomes an aspect of that."

With education cuts in the state budget, retirement benefits to pay and decreasing enrollment, district Director of Fiscal Services Kris Cavallero told the board that "as it stands, we'll end the 2008-09 fiscal year almost $3 million in the hole." While district administrators expect many of the cuts in the most recent state budget won't be in the final draft, the district has to plan as if they will happen. "The Merced County Office of Education is asking us to prepare for the worst," Cavallero said.

To do that, the board looked at dozens of options, including cutting salaries across-the-board, reducing the days some employees work or having only one employee in each of the schools' libraries, instead of one and a half as it is now.

Michael Casias, the district's California School Employees Union chapter president, asked the board keep any employee dismissals far away from the district's non-teaching staff. "We've had our fair share of cuts," Casias said. Joined by about 30 of his union members, Casias and others stood outside the district's board room prior to the meeting in their CSEA T-shirts. "Classified cuts hurt students," said Eddie Padilla, the chapter's vice president, adding his fellow bus drivers, custodians, instructional aides and administrative assistants are the "backbone" of the district.

Instead of cutting those types of jobs, the board opted to eliminate several academic positions and as well as some district-level expenses. At its next meeting the board will be asked to eliminate three special education positions, three full-time and one part-time school counselor positions, four reading coach positions, four middle school assistant principal positions and four 'content specialists' or teachers on special assignment positions.

But that doesn't mean the people who work in those positions have to find employment elsewhere -- even if they do get a pink slip. "We have a place for them," said Associate Superintendent of Personnel Services Robert Frausto. Many of the people working those jobs also have teaching credentials and will be placed in a classroom as a teacher for the 2008-09 school year. There are also several district jobs being done by temporary year-to-year employees, Frausto said. The district will go ahead and give each of those 26 employees a pink slip, as they do every year.

What these cuts do mean is that activities such as federal literacy program Reading First will have to operate with a much smaller staff -- something Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Rosemary P. Duran was not happy about. "I'd rather have a root canal," she said during the meeting.

Other cuts the board would like to see include a 3 percent utility cost reduction, a 10 percent cut in the cost of district supplies and a $120,805 cut in travel expenses. The board also agreed to quit supplying refreshments at its meetings, which will save $2,280.

The only other cut the board will look at during its meeting next Tuesday night is increasing the size of its kindergarten through third-grade classes. Removing the one-teacher-to-every-20-student policy in one or all of those grades could save the district from needing as many teachers next school year.

The board will be asked to make decisions on which cuts to carry out at its next board meeting.

No matter how many pink slips the district decides to pass out, all the board members said they weren't happy about it. "When you give somebody a notice, it rips their heart out," school board member Susan Walsh said. "I hope we are as careful at that as we can be."

Reporter Abby Souza can be reached at 209 385-2407 or asouza@mercedsun-star.com.

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