Schools struggle with uncertainty amidst budget cuts

Reagan Elementary student Morgan Polley identifies a right angle with an interactive whiteboard. Going paperless and using more technology are cited by principal Robb Christopherson as ways to reduce costs and teach more effectively.
Reagan Elementary student Morgan Polley identifies a right angle with an interactive whiteboard. Going paperless and using more technology are cited by principal Robb Christopherson as ways to reduce costs and teach more effectively.

These are the grim choices facing school board members throughout California after another year of crushing budget deficits. Yet more tough choices remain.

Gov. Jerry Brown was unable to convince enough Republican legislators to place a ballot initiative before voters that would extend temporary tax hikes set to expire in June. While there is now talk of placing a ballot measure before voters later in the year, California might still be forced in the interim to make an additional $5 billion in cuts to schools, according to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The cuts will result painful decisions for school districts in the San Joaquin Valley, an area that already services many of the state’s poorest families. For example, Fresno Unified School District must slash another $70.9 million from next year’s spending plan, according to Budget Director Santino Danisi. As if this wasn’t bad enough, these cuts come on top of $88 million already scratched from this year’s budget.

Class sizes in kindergarten through third grade, which grew last year from 20 to 24, will expand again to 30 students per class, according to Danisi. He also said salaries could be cut for all employees by five percent. These reductions and other cutbacks invited criticism and concern from district parents, many of who have lashed out at board meetings.

“It is just so disappointing, all they talk about is cuts,” Fresno Unified parent Angela Gonzales said when asked about morale among parents.

“Undoubtedly there are community members that are pretty upset and they have been turning out to express their discontentment,” Danisi said. “But many are understanding of our situation. We get our revenue from the state and we must do what we can to bridge the gap.”

Clovis Unified, the second-largest district in Fresno County, is also beset with problems caused by the budget crunch. All employees took salary reductions during this school year and will do so again next year. A number of administrators are being reassigned back to teaching positions in the classroom. Yet even with these reductions an additional $12 million in cuts must be implemented now that the tax negotiations are dead, according to district spokesperson Kelly Avants.

“I want our community to understand that we are in a grave situation, and that what happens in Sacramento in the next few months is going to have a significant impact on Clovis Unified, our students, our employees, and ultimately our future,” said Clovis Unified Superintendent David Cash in a letter to community members.

While administrators in the district office grapple with the numbers, teachers and principals try to focus on their daily jobs, despite looming uncertainty. The anxiety is primarily from STAR testing, the state’s high-stakes accountability program. Students’ performance on the various subjects of the California Standards Test (CST) determines a school’s Academic Performance Index (API) rating.

Robb Christopherson, the principal at Reagan Elementary School in southeast Clovis, said the largest struggle for teachers is dealing with the unknown.

“The biggest thing we are dealing with right now is uncertainty; we are planning for the worst and hoping for the best,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are at the mercy of the state and the budget process.”

At the same time he said there was room for optimism. For example, he said using more technology tools was a way to do more with less.

“Educators are creative beings and when times change, our creative juices begin to flow even more. As long as we are all willing to hold on to our core values and continue to focus on student achievement for all students, we will easily weather this storm and, in fact, will probably be more efficient and effective at doing what we do,” he said.

For example, Reagan and nearby Freedom Elementary both no longer send out paper copies of their weekly calendars. Instead they are posted on the schools’ web sites. Also, many teachers at Reagan update parents through classroom web pages and online gradebooks, which further saves on printing costs.

Christopherson also cited the use of interactive whiteboards and deeper integration with technology throughout the school day as ways to further engage students even while their school has less money for resources.

There is still a slim chance that the worst-case scenarios that schools are preparing for may not come to be. Gov. Brown indicated recently that he will appeal directly to voters and push for an initiative to extend the temporary taxes on the November ballot. While doing so would not end the current need for deeper cuts, it could give districts some relief later in the year.

Budget Director Danisi and others will also be awaiting the California Department of Finance’s revised budget proposal in May. If the plan for closing the budget gap is solely through cuts, then those worst-case scenarios like five-percent salary cuts and increased class sizes will come to fruition.

Budget Director Danisi, Principal Christopherson and others will need to check the news often, as proposals and offers between Gov. Brown and legislators change with great regularity. Either way, it will likely be another year of trying to meet the state’s expectations with even fewer resources.

Derek Walter is a fifth grade teacher in the Clovis Unified School District in Fresno.

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