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