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Lee Andersen: How schools will cope with cuts

Merced County school districts have been hit hard by education cuts in the state budget.

Recent newspaper and television coverage of school district board meetings in Merced County have revealed intense debates about laying off teachers and other employees, increasing numbers of students per class and ending popular programs.

At the same time other districts have been forced to use available reserve funds to cover lost revenue expected from the state.

Merced County's school district board members and administrators now have critical and difficult decisions to make, based on the state budget adopted by the legislature and signed by the governor Feb. 20.

The decisions are difficult because the cuts are enormous, budget adoption was eight months late, complex new funding formulas and program requirements are included and the budget applies to not one but two years, from July 2008 through June 2010.

Education budget cuts at the state level for the two-year period amount to approximately $8.4 billion, about 17 percent of total state funding for schools compared to the 2007-08 school year.

For Merced County, the figures are $84.7 million and 19 percent.

Most Merced County districts reduced their original 2008-09 budgets about 6 percent, expecting that income from the state would be reduced. Those reductions were made by cutting low priority expenses.

Now, halfway through the school year, they have been informed that even deeper cuts must be made.

In fact, for some specific programs such as gifted and talented education (GATE), school and library improvement, arts and music, school safety, math and reading professional development, county office fiscal oversight funds are reduced by 15 percent and districts are free to ignore program requirements and use the remaining funds to fill gaps in other parts of the budget.

While this feature of the state budget has been labeled, "flexibility," it really offers little more that the difficult choice of cutting more of certain kinds of student services and the staff who provide them or eliminating those services and people entirely to help support the rest of the programs.

The large, late and complex budget hit to education has hurt every district in Merced County, but the ones forced to consider staff layoffs, ending programs, moving students to different campuses, reducing school busing and other drastic measures are those with small amounts in reserve accounts and those losing students and the income linked to enrollment numbers.

Declining enrollment is hurting 15 of the county's 20 districts, with the most impacted losing approximately 5 percent of their income this year compared with last year.

And several of those districts with minimal reserve funds, close to 5 percent or below, are the ones forced to make drastic reductions in staff and other expenses to remain solvent.

Are there alternatives other than staff for budget reductions?

Very few, because about 80 percent of districts' costs are employee salaries and benefits, with the vast majority of those for teachers and other credentialed specialists.

The total cost of noncredentialed staff is about 25 percent and the administrative staff is about 5 percent. Most districts have already done energy audits and cut utility costs, streamlined bus routes (average cost per bus mile is $5.50), trimmed purchases of equipment and supplies and reined in conference and travel expenses.

A number of districts are even delaying payments to vendors to the maximum legal limit to help maintain funds for making payrolls!

The simplest way to make significant savings is to eliminate jobs: administrators, teachers, librarians, counselors, aides, secretaries and support staff, maintenance workers, custodians and others.

One of the biggest problems with that approach is the loss of young teachers who, in a few years, will be the heart of our school programs; well-trained and experienced professionals with the bulk of their careers ahead of them.

Loss of school staff morale and community support for the schools is another negative impact of significant staff cuts.

Alternatives considered by our districts include districtwide salary reductions or furloughs, elimination of annual salary increases and shortened work years or days.

Each of these strategies requires all employee groups to accept the program and to allow employee contracts to be modified to include the changes. Very few districts are able to reach this point with all groups.

This year the result of years of state budgets using short-term, fluctuating revenue for long-term commitments, particularly commitments to the schools, has necessitated major budget reductions for Merced County districts.

School board and community members agonizing over terribly difficult choices are doing the responsible thing; preparing for at least several more years of underfunding of our schools.

For specific information about particular schools and districts, contact your school district office.

Lee Andersen is Merced County superintendent of schools.

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