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The school budget battle

Educators feel the pain of ongoing finance delays

Posted: January 10, 2009 9:18 p.m.
Updated: January 11, 2009 4:59 a.m.
 
Regardless of what action Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger takes to remedy the state's financial crisis, public education will pay.

Already hit with massive cuts over the last two years, the Hart district is facing yet another round of financial slashing that might end in personnel cuts, the district's top official said.

"Based on the governor's (current) proposed budget, we are looking at a $29 million cut in the next two-and-a-half years," said Jaime Castellanos, superintendent of William S. Hart Union School District. "That is a worst-case scenario."

Steve Sturgeon, Hart district board president, concurred.

"It is extremely serious," he said. "The kind of cuts the state is going to require will force us to consider the prospect of cutting teacher positions and increasing class sizes, or cutting other programs or salaries in order to meet the funding sources."

If instituted, the $29 million cut over two-and-a-half years represents between 12 and 15 percent of the district's total operating budget, Sturgeon said.

"Eighty-five percent of our budget in the district is salaries and benefits," Sturgeon said.

Castellanos said the district is also deeply concerned about maintaining its current educational standards.

"Right now we are number one for our size district in the state," he said, referring to state-mandated annual standardized testing scores. "There is no change in the state's education requirements. We still have to meet the standards and requirements from No Child Left Behind."

Castellanos argued that state legislators are cutting dollars that will negatively impact mandatory programs required for continued funding, even at reduced levels.

"We will still do our very best to give every child in our district the same level of quality education they are getting now, but we will have (fewer) resources to do it (with)," he said.

Sturgeon said the board is also committed to district students.

"We know that as a board we will work to maintain the expected level of education that our parents and students have become accustomed to," he said. "We have multiple choices. And in all cases there's going to be sacrifice. I am not speaking for the board, only for myself, but there is no quick and easy solution.

"There will be sacrifices on multiple levels."

This year's potential mid-year cuts represent $275 per child, said Sue Guthrie, the district's chief financial officer.

"And this on top of previous cuts," she said.

The district made a nearly $10 million retroactive cut to the 2007-08 budget last year.

Until the state makes a decision they will stick to, Hart and all other California school districts are operating their schools on previously-promised money for which they are not certain will arrive.

Castellanos said the district is hard at work brainstorming different ideas on how to deal with the cuts they are given when a decision is finally made.

Sturgeon said worried parents need to take their concerns to their elected officials.

"They need to yell and scream," he said. "The state has, over the past three years, continued to reduce its contribution to education. California is now 47th out of 50 states in terms of how much we spend per pupil.
We used to be in the top 10."

Castellanos said parents and concerned citizens are welcome to attend school board meetings for updates on what the district is doing to address its current financial situation. They should also contact area politicians like Assemblyman Cameron Smyth and Sen. George Runner, he said.

"Parents are important because parents are heard," Castellanos said. "When the concerns get heard, we get action. Something has to happen and this final budget has to stick."

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