Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ojai School Board Facing Major Budget Cuts

Closing elementary schools among options considered in wake of $2 million drop in state funds

By Sondra Murphy
Public school supporters are calling on the populace to participate in a letter-writing campaign. To school districts that have been cutting back for years, like Ojai Unified, the state budget crisis is an ominous threat.
The district office boardroom was spilling over with school advocates during a special public input session on Tuesday. Teachers, school staff, parents and students spoke to the board of their concerns as the district prepares to eliminate programs in order to remain financially solvent.
“We have three different problems we’re dealing with,” said board President Steve Fields. “The first is declining enrollment — the second is the state budget, from which we are projected to get less money per student. In addition to that, there are a variety of programs on the state and federal level that are also getting cut.
“So while all of our costs are going up, we’re facing cuts,” said Fields. He called attention to a handout of the OUSD projected deficit work sheet that listed revenue decreases from the general fund, as well as potential areas of reduction being considered by the district.
Under revenue decreases were listed loss of students, special education funds, health benefits, step and column increases, utility increases and the deficit caused by the state’s budget shortfall. These items total $1,942,055.
Cuts to be considered by the board are staff reductions, class size increases for grades four through 12, management and support services such as program specialists, elementary secretarial support hours, maintenance-grounds-custodial, warehouse personnel, transportation, nutrition services, library and computer lab hours, elementary P.E., athletics, health benefit reductions, workday reductions, athletics, high school career counselor, support periods and a 10 percent budget cut at all sites and departments. Also up for consideration is the closing of elementary schools, specifically Summit and either Meiners Oaks or Mira Monte. All items on that list represent $2,704,400.
“On the back of the page are listed the people who are really going to be deciding our fate who, in my opinion, have not been supportive of public education.” Their phone numbers and addresses were included.
“The board has not determined any of these cuts yet,” said superintendent Tim Baird. “What I have done is put them into categories. Further down the list are items more harmful to our educational delivery. None of these are easy cuts.”
Parents Tim Koester and Lauren Coyne addressed the board about the possible closure of Summit Elementary School. “This school is serving students from rural Upper Ojai, as well as Santa Paula,” said Coyne. “Founded nearly 100 years ago, Summit attracts students from outside the district because of its small size. Many of these families would not send their kids to other schools.”
“We have a tendency to close ranks when it comes to closing schools and we parents have come up with a list of ways to help save all the schools,” said Koester. Included in the list was raising money through PTAs or PTOs. “If we can raise $250,000 for a skate park, which I’m totally in support of, we could raise money for our schools.”
Clerk Kathi Smith said she admired the enthusiasm, but reminded the crowd, “This is this year’s funds. We still need to do a letter-writing campaign to get the funds restored for other years.”
Lori Hamor spoke as a parent of two Meiners Oaks students. “One of the district’s greatest assets is the presence of the neighborhood schools. These elementary schools are more than just brick and mortar,” said Hamor. “They are anchors of the community.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me to take a school that is functioning at a high level and closing it to save money,” said Mira Monte parent Christel Kelsey. “All the research I’m reading suggests middle school is not such a great way to educate kids. It makes more sense to close Matilija and make our elementary schools K through eight.”
Sean Kelsey echoed the sentiment. “I want to emphasize that if there were no budget crisis and I had the opportunity to keep my kids at Mira Monte and not send them to Matilija, I would.”
“We have had a committee looking at school configurations over the last year and they are close to getting a report to us,” said Fields, adding that the committee was not created because of budget concerns. “They’re looking at all the issues surrounding reconfiguration, which are numerous. It is not necessarily one of the things that would help us save money and that’s why it’s not on the list of possible closures.”
Nordhoff students Matt Smith, Cole Bettles and Alex Miotti spoke with concern for those facing job loss. “Some of us are really nervous,” said Smith. He asked the board to consider the consequences to student course options in the absence of enthusiastic teachers who keep students engaged and interested in the classes.
“I’m aware that we have resources in the valley that are ready to mobilize to help solve the problem,” said Meiners Oaks parent Glenn Fout. “The most important thing is preserving our neighborhood schools and getting that off the list as soon as possible. That would alleviate a lot of concern for parents,” he said.
“As a community, we need to start talking about a parcel tax,” said Fout. “The state leadership has failed us completely.”
Nutrition services manager Susan Thomas told the board she was worried about possibly losing the school meal program and offering sack lunches instead. “I don’t want to go down that road. Please sit down with Suzanne (Lugotoff, child nutrition services director) to discuss other options.”
“I’m speaking as a teacher who has been a member of the community for 47 years,” said San Antonio’s Sandra Hansen. “It’s kind of like ‘Yertle the Turtle.’ Teachers are holding everyone else up on their backs.” Hansen reminded the board of many cuts that will come directly out of teachers’ salaries and personal accounts. “Please don’t pick our pockets to balance the budget.”
Matilija secretary Barbi Rice spoke representing the classified employees of the district. “Our pockets are even smaller than the teachers,” she said. “I’m here to request we formally involve all the stakeholders who are impacted by this. This is going to change people’s lives.”
Rice said the district should make cuts where it would do the most good and create the least drastic change for the students and employees. “When cuts are made, work does not go away,” said Rice. “I would never target individuals in any way, but what I think we’re looking at is cutting where it will do the most good.”
Rice also pointed out that many OUSD employees live outside of Ojai and would have different legislators from those in Ojai. She offered another list of government contacts.
Matilija math teacher Magda Perkins said, “This is a problem that is way beyond us and it will take mobilization of the community. Is it OK that the richest state in the nation is 48th in student-spending ratio? There should be a law against that.”
“I feel very blessed to have spent my career at this district,” said Summit teacher Heather Ramsey. “Community schools are innately valuable to the communities they serve. They provide a service to this planet and I hope we can save them,” she said. “When I leave here tonight, I’m going to get on my computer and contact my representatives.”
“I like the creative ideas brought here,” said Pauline Mercado. “I’m beginning to think that we cannot count on Sacramento and we have to save our own schools and be willing as a community to sponsor that and fund that and encourage that.”
“It’s my experience that the board is very pro-teacher and staff,” said Vice President Linda Taylor. “This is a nightmare for the community. If you have thoughts and can’t come to a meeting, send questions or suggestions to us at the district office.”
“When Glenn brought up the parcel tax idea, it is noteworthy that raising taxes got applause,” said board member Rikki Horne.
“I’ve weighed in before on the lack of willingness in Sacramento to participate in social living and pay taxes,” said Kathi Smith. “When I hear anti-tax proponents talking about cutting the fat from education, I just say phooey. There’s no fat left in this school district. It’s nothing but human flesh.”
“It was very valuable for me to hear from such a wide range of people here for a variety of reasons,” said Fields as he closed the session. “I encourage you to follow Heather’s advice. As so many people said, we need to come together as a community.”
“You are going to have numerous opportunities to speak to the board and me,” said Baird. He invited the public to meet with him next Wednesday at 7 p.m. when more dialogue will take place and people can get answers to some of their questions. It will be at the OUSD boardroom.
There is also another special public input session scheduled at 6 p.m. before the April 1 meeting of the school board at which individuals may make comments under the provisions of the Brown Act. At those sessions, the OUSD board is unable to respond to questions or participate in dialogue with speakers but, as Mercado said, “It’s helpful when people come in and give us new ideas because it does go into the decision-making process.”
During Baird’s superintendent’s report at the regular portion of the board meeting, he announced that summer school for students up to eighth grade might not be possible this year due to budget shortfalls. “I know some people are waiting for the other shoe to drop. The shoe is dropping,” said Baird. Intervention programs fund summer schools and he said that the high school must have priority for those resources, impacting lower grade summer sessions.
“As we deal with this budget issue, we will find more and more things that hurt kids and this is one of those things.” The district office may be contacted at 414 E. Ojai Ave., Ojai, CA 93023 or by visiting its web site at

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