State

As school year pared, some fear impact on Stanislaus County kids

School days will be slashed to balance budgets in half of Stanislaus County's districts next year. Up to five days of classes will be ditched in exchange for lower staff salaries.

But shorting children's education is wrong, according to some who warn that the cuts could result in a long-term competitive disadvantage for children and communities.

California lawmakers are giving budget-strapped districts permission to cut classes, shrinking the mandatory school year to 175 days rather than 180. Districts are getting the scheduling wiggle room as a way to cope with dwindling funds for 2010-11.

About half of Stanislaus' districts have resisted that temptation. They're opting to balance budgets while maintaining a full year of education for students.

Most Modesto districts, however, have traded away up to five school days to persuade teachers and other employees to accept lower annual salaries next year.

As a result, campuses in the Modesto, Sylvan and Salida districts -- along with those in Oakdale and Denair -- will have among the shortest school years in the country. Their students will receive 175 days of education.

"Internationally, the average number of school days is 193," said Marilyn Draheim, associate professor of education at University of the Pacific. While most states require 180 days or more, Draheim said standards are far higher elsewhere. For example: South Korea provides 225 days, Japan 223 and China 221.

"As an educator, I really think having fewer days of instruction has an effect," Draheim warned. "The more school days that are cut, the less opportunities there are for youngsters to receive organized and structured time for learning."

School officials acknowledge that cutting days may hurt children.

"Are we happy about it? Absolutely not," said Denair Superintendent Ed Parraz. "We're going to do the best job we can with 175 days."

Reducing instructional days particularly hurts children from low-income families, Draheim said, because they tend to have less parental support for learning outside school hours.

The cuts also will hurt Stanislaus' economic viability, predicted Tom Norquist, president of Stanislaus Partners in Education.

"From a competitive standpoint, cutting any time off of our school year is putting us behind," said Norquist, whose organization prods schools to better prepare youngsters for the work force.

Different in private sector

Throughout this recession, Norquist said, many private sector employees have endured pay cuts without having their workload reduced. He said employees at his heating and air conditioning company took 10 percent pay cuts and he "severely cut" his own salary to keep the business open.

"Our people understand we're all sharing the pain," Norquist said. For children's sake, he said school employees also should accept pay reductions without workday reductions. "Why don't they understand that?"

Teachers see it differently.

"It's not like teachers are greedy, horrible people," said Elana Davidson, a Patterson educator on the California Teachers Association's board of directors. She said teachers have the right to negotiate their working conditions, and that's what they have done. "It makes us sound like we're willing to shortchange the kids, but the school districts are offering (the shorter school year)."

That happened in Modesto.

In their initial contract proposal in March, Modesto City Schools board members proposed eliminating five instructional days and two preparation days to compensate teachers for pay cuts. Teachers last month agreed to that deal, accepting a 4.5 percent salary reduction for 2010-11.

Davidson said school districts financially are better off when they operate only 175 days. The amount of money they receive from the state is the same regardless of whether they teach 175 days or 180.

While funding is the same, education may not be.

"There doesn't appear to be much of a concern that quality will suffer," said Bill Bassitt, who runs the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance. He said he understands the school districts are in an economic jam, but he fears cutting school days will result in less education. "It all comes back to a competitive issue, and we are losing that game."

Parraz, the Denair superintendent, said it came down to laying off employees or shortening the school year.

"It was a losing situation all the way around," he said, noting that teachers agreed to 3.4 percent pay cuts in exchange for teaching five fewer days. "When you're taking things away, nothing is going to be good for kids."

Some districts resistant

Some districts, however, have held the line when it comes to teaching days.

Turlock and Ceres schools and their teachers unions are at a bargaining impasse over the issue. Those districts want teachers to take pay cuts but continue teaching the same number of days.

"Some of the decisions being made about education for purely financial reasons are not good for kids," cautioned Debbie Look, legislation director for California State PTA.

Look said the PTA is frustrated and concerned about districts cutting school days: "It's a huge step backwards, and it's really going to hurt us down the road."

Budget-cutting alternatives aren't easy to find, Look said.

"Funding has been cut so substantially that districts don't have many options available to them," she said, noting that most districts have eaten through reserves. "We need to find an adequate way to fund education in California."

That's the ongoing problem, agreed Phil Alfano, assistant superintendent in Patterson.

"Public education is not a priority for our Legislature," Alfano said. "California ranks 50th in the nation in per-pupil spending."

Alfano said his district has pared its budget for three years, reducing staff and freezing salaries. Now, Patterson teacher pay will shrink 2.2 percent as the school year drops to 177 days.

"We've cut as deep as we can without the system breaking down," Alfano said. "Some of us are doing the job that three people used to do."

In northeast Modesto's Sylvan district, about $9 million has been slashed in the past three years, Superintendent John Halverson said.

Larger classes, as well

Besides getting five fewer education days, Sylvan students will be taught in larger classes next year. So while they'll work fewer days, teachers will be responsible for more youngsters and lose 3.85 percent of their pay.

"It's going to impact the quality of the education we can provide, absolutely it will," Halverson said about the shortened school year. But he doesn't think families will opt out of Sylvan schools in favor of nearby districts -- such as Riverbank -- that will continue to offer 180 days of education. "I don't think the public is that aware."

The Modesto districts will limit the impact of the shrinking year by carefully selecting which days to close, according to Twila Tosh, who is being promoted to superintendent of Salida schools.

Salida will adopt Modesto City Schools' calendar, which closes campuses on days that tend to be less productive. That includes the days after Halloween, Veterans Day, Lincoln's birthday and Easter, and the day before Thanksgiving.

Schools will be closed three full weeks for winter break, one week for spring break and on assorted holidays, such as Labor Day and Martin Luther King Day.

March will become the only month during the school year without at least one long weekend. There will be 23 days of school in March next year, compared with some months that will have as few as 15 days of education.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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