State

Modesto City Schools deficit pegged at $27 million

Modesto City Schools' two newest trustees took their seats on the Board of Education on Monday night, in time to hear a bleak financial report outlining one of the biggest challenges facing them for the last half of the 2009-10 school year.

The numbers keep getting worse, with the district's deficit now projected to come in at $27.4 million.

Trustee Kim Spina, elected by her colleagues to become the board's president, vowed to involve the public with the district's daunting budget challenges by holding town hall meetings where parents, staff, students and community members could be heard.

"Through teamwork, transparency and diligence, we will succeed," she said.

Officials still plan to trim $15 million to $25 million from the district's budget for 2010-11. Modesto City Schools' annual budget is $253.8 million.

The district has one thing in its favor: It has $62.9 million in unspent money from the previous school year, savings from hiring and spending freezes and its reserves, said Julie Chapin, director of business services.

That cash is keeping the district in the black as it prepares to slash spending.

New Trustees Ruben Villalobos and Sue Zwahlen will have a hand in choosing how to balance the books right away. Zwahlen was chosen by her colleagues to become the board's vice president.

Trustee Steve Grenbeaux asked if the district could go below a state- required reserve limit -- 3 percent of the district's budget set aside for emergencies. The state is allowing districts to go below that threshold, Chapin said, but she's not recommending that.

Modesto Teachers Association representative Barney Hale agreed with Chapin, but said the district's substantial leftover cash -- the $62.9 million -- should be tapped to help save jobs.

Also at Monday's board meeting, trustees heard an update on the district's progress toward meeting its strategic planning goals. Approved in July 2008, the strategic plan outlines how to improve student learning and use resources efficiently. Twice a year, officials give an update on how well the district is meeting the plan's goals.

The update notes that several schools' low-income and minority students have improved proficiency on English and math test scores. Training continues for teachers and administrators, especially for those working with students in special education and those learning English.

Trustees heard from high school cheerleaders, their coaches and parents who spoke out about a change in district policy that restricts the amount of tumbling and stunts cheerleaders can perform. The speakers said they believe concerns about injuries are unfounded, especially since other sports such as football and wrestling are just as or more dangerous. They urged trustees and administrators to reconsider the change.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339. Read Hatfield's blog at thehive.modbee.com/ ExtraCredit.

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