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Coastal Voices Guest Opinion: School Board takes prudent steps

It’s budget-cutting time again, state-wide and in Del Norte schools, and there’s no $2.9 million federal stimulus rescue for us this year. We all knew that would be the case even while gratefully gathering up those one-time funds a short year ago.

The School Board approved spending all allowable stimulus funds to employ staff this year.  That’s what the funds were for. However, the message was clear: “This is one-time money, and we’ll have to cut by this much next year.” Everyone grimaced imagining the pain ahead. Now we are all living it: 22,000 teachers were pink-slipped state wide by the March 15 deadline.

The board started planning last September in preparation for this day. It has already closed next year’s funding gap by $2 million, with more than a quarter from reserves. That last $1 million reduction will involve belt tightening for all. Administrators are stepping up to new tasks left vacant by principal retirement, and they also perform many grant-funded roles. With 85 percent of the school district budget going for personnel, cutting costs will impact the rest of the work force one way or another. 

The board must negotiate the next big items. Board members hope in the end to be able to adopt a budget that will keep class sizes at this year’s levels (25:1 in K-3rd grade and 35:1 in grades 4-12). This means keeping teachers employed, but that costs money. What will offset that? Options beyond cutting personnel that other districts are implementing include cutting paid work days and freezing contractual pay increases. 

While waiting for negotiations to proceed, the board has reluctantly taken the steps it must for the worst-case scenario. It has approved giving notices to all administrators that they could be reassigned, released or have their days reduced for next year.  Notices were delivered to 26 regular and temporary teachers, from a pool of 225, that they may not be back in the fall. Plans have been laid to not replace administrator, teacher and support staff retirees.  Notices will next go to a variety of support staff members (custodians, instructional assistants, secretaries, etc.). These are actions the district does not want to take, but if this is what is required to keep the district solvent, that’s what the district will have to do.

There’s pressure from employee groups to spend down the reserves, but the board has been strong about holding onto sufficient funds to meet one month’s payroll. Imagine this community without the school district’s $3.5 million-plus monthly payroll in circulation! Imagine how hard it would be for our staff members to put food on the table for their families. An IOU just won’t work. The school district’s staff members are too important to leave vulnerable to that scenario. 

The state, over and over, has postponed payments by weeks and months at a time. This saves the state from borrowing and paying interest and puts the burden to do so on schools and local governments. Because our district has shown fiscal restraint, we have been able to stay financially solvent. Not true of a number of school districts around the state: Many face the probability of going bankrupt. Our school district needs to be ready to cover payroll costs in the absence of state payments. A one-month reserve is the minimum a district should hold ready.  (Even that may not be enough as the state now says it could delay payments owed even longer.)

Like the stimulus funds, the district’s reserve could only cut the pain once. What of 2011-12? Projections indicate this downturn will continue.  We need to stay ready to rely on ourselves because our state legislators cannot take care of the state’s business, which includes paying bills on time for services they demand.

Tough decisions are in the works in the Del Norte County Unified School District. We want our community to understand that this School Board is actively seeking to keep as many employees as possible. We hope our partners in education will do the same.   

Jan Moorehouse is superintendent of the Del Norte County Unified School District.

 

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