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Cuts threaten class sizes

Districts seek to preserve programs, jobs in budget crisis

Posted: January 26, 2009 9:33 p.m.
Updated: January 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 

Bracing against the threat of massive state budget cuts, officials at two local school districts believe increasing class sizes would reduce the number of layoffs and loss of programs.

"The board's intent is to preserve programs and preserve jobs," said Judy Umeck, board president for the Saugus Union School District.

The district faces a possible $2.6 million in cuts - a 4.5 percent budget slice - this year, said Bob Cutting, assistant superintendent of business for the Saugus Union School District.

Next year's cuts could be between $3.1 million and $5 million.

"I believe that we'll probably be looking at twice what our mid-year cuts are," Cutting said.

While flexibility in class sizes will help preserve funding, Saugus officials have other options, including pay freezes, eliminating assistant principal positions and some bus routes, Cutting said.

Without a state budget, board members find themselves in a quandary.

"(Cutting) comes to us and shows us what reality is and sometimes that's a really difficult pill to swallow," Umeck said. "Until they pass a budget, we don't even know what dollar amount we're dealing with."

The Saugus Union board recently passed a resolution that supports Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's flexibility proposal, which allows school leaders to increase class sizes.

"Our objective was to stay as far away from the classroom as possible," Umeck said.

More local control of money would also help.

"Sacramento has to start trusting its local school districts and its boards," Umeck said. "Give us the dollars and let us be accountable for how we spend those dollars."

While keeping parents, teachers and school staff aware of the budget situation through constant meetings, Saugus Union district officials continue to encourage school supporters to voice their concerns to state officials, Umeck said.

But the talk of eliminating jobs and programs for kids remains an emotional subject.

"Our lives are all intertwined, administrators, board members," Umeck said. "We see each other passing in the store, going to church, going to a sporting event. For us, it's very personal."

The Newhall School District, which includes 10 schools and more than 7,000 K-6 students, faces a possible $3 million cut from its $57 million budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year, said Superintendent Marc Winger.

While the proposed cuts to the 2008-09 budget could come as high as $2.1 million, the district could absorb much of the costs thanks to a well-kept reserve, Winger said.

"That doesn't meant it doesn't hurt us," Winger said.

Having more flexibility with classroom sizes would benefit the districts.

"We'd be able to use that money for the basic operating cost of the district," Winger said.

Even with an increase in class sizes from 20 to 25 students, about 35 teachers would still receive layoff notices, even though it doesn't guarantee a layoff, Winger said.

Newhall board members are focused on preserving classroom teaching positions, Winger said.

"They have given us a very clear direction about what their priorities are," Winger said.

Saugus Union's budget situation prompted Darcie Withers, executive vice president of the PTA at Mountainview Elementary School, to attend a recent board meeting.

"I think there's a lot of rumors," Withers said. "There's not a lot of information coming to the parents."

Withers hopes the board can make as many cuts that don't affect the classroom and programs for students.

Local teachers remain concerned with the discussion of budget cuts.

"While we're trying to do everything best for the children, we're trying to maintain our standings as far as salaries and jobs," said Joan Oxman, president of the Saugus Teachers Association and chair of the Santa Clarita Valley Teachers Association.

The Saugus Teachers Association represents more than 500 Saugus Union School District teachers while the SCV Teachers Association covers more than 2,500 teachers across five local school districts.

"The (Budget) problem is between the state and school districts," Oxman said.

Uncertainty remains an issue with making sure teachers are aware of potential budget cuts.

The association holds regular meetings and sends newsletters to keep teachers informed about cuts.

Contract negotiations between the teachers' union and the district are on hold.

"For the time being, we've agreed to not do anything until we have a budget in place," Oxman said.

It all gets back to the lack of a state budget.

"Until you can find the problem, it's difficult to find the solution," Oxman said.

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