Thursday, April 3, 2008

OUSD Budget Battles Heat Up

Full house hears plans to cut $1.9 million, school closures looming

By Sondra Murphy

It is often a sign that Ojai Unified School District is facing rough times when the board meetings have to be moved to Chaparral Auditorium just to accommodate the crowd.
The pledge of allegiance was a full-bodied, acoustical chorus with which to start off the democratic process of the public forum Tuesday as more than 200 staff and community members came to give their two cents about nearly $2 million in anticipated revenue reductions. This number represents about a 10 percent reduction from the approximately $25 million total budget in the 2008-2009 school year.
Many had come to previous assemblies on the subject, from the March 18 board meeting to OUSD superintendent Tim Baird’s special budget discussion last week in the same location. Sentiments shared by the community have changed little since the release of the administration’s projected budget deficit work sheet outlined the expected $1.9 million loss in revenues and itemized lists of the possible areas to eliminate in order to submit a balanced budget to the county by the end of June.
The state budget deficit combined with loss of categorical funds and declining enrollment has compounded the financial hit OUSD is expected to take. Further complicating the district’s efforts is the history of California’s annual budget adoption being perpetually tardy.
“This is a very painful process,” said board President Steve Fields as he prepared to open public comments. “It is a crisis created by the state legislature, but we are faced with the task of making cuts.”
Certificated and classified employees and parents expressing their opinions on which items should be taken off the table of elimination pretty much covered the entire list of potential reductions. District administration has prioritized these, with first-level reduction options totaling over $1 million and second-level options totaling nearly another $1.7 million.
Some, like parent and Meiners Oaks teacher Aimee Mendoza, voiced support. “We appreciate the horrible situation you find yourselves in,” said Mendoza. “As difficult as it will be, we have tremendous respect in the decision-making process of the board.”
Others shared interest in renewing efforts to pass a parcel tax to generate income for the district, especially parents representing the elementary school communities facing possible closures. Beth Kaiser questioned whether the prospect of consolidating the Mira Monte and Meiners Oaks campuses would truly be cost effective. She said that safety and discipline at large schools “becomes crowd control” and mentioned the traffic hazards and reduction in personalized service to families associated with larger schools.
Meiners Oaks parent Glenn Fout warned that closing neighborhood schools could have further negative impacts on district enrollment, a risk echoed by Summit’s Lauren Coyne.
Several teachers asked that they not be made to pay for the shortfall. John Hook compared the budget crisis to bone cancer. “First we trimmed fat, then muscle and now we are down to bare bones,” said Hook. “Teachers are the backbone of our schools.”
District library media technicians, in full force for their annual state of the libraries report, chimed in on the requests. “We strongly urge you to take library cuts off the table,” said Topa Topa LMT Carina Solecki. Later in the meeting, the library team presented data connecting strong learning skills with school libraries and projected a compelling, multiple-site slide show of OUSD students in theirs.
Almost all speakers agreed that the community needed to join forces to combat the shortfall. Letter-writing campaigns to state representatives are being organized by PTAs and PTOs throughout the district in am effort to sway legislators on the subject.
“Welcome to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Year of Education,” said Ojai parent and Oxnard Educators Association president Joe Murphy. “I’m not sure if, when he said it, that he meant he was going to kill us or fix us. I’ve been e-mailing him almost daily ever since to get clarification on that,” Murphy said, referring to Schwarzenegger’s December announcement proclaiming 2008 as California’s Year of Education.
“Where is the outrage?” Murphy asked. “Not funding our schools is crippling our economy.” He further requested the district’s leadership confront the Republican Central Committee’s “no new revenues” pledge.
“All Schwarzenegger would have to do is, with a single signature, reinstate the Vehicle License Fee, which would be a revenue source large enough to eliminate the need for educational budget cuts. The numbers are about the same,” Murphy told OVN after expiring his three-minute time limit with the board members.
Voters passed Proposition 47 in 1986, allocating most vehicle license revenues to cities and counties. In 1998, rates were reduced, but included provisions that, when money in the state’s general fund is insufficient, vehicle license fees may be raised to make up the difference. In the summer of 2003, Gov. Davis reinstated the full VLF, a move estimated to generate $4 billion per year and harshly criticized by Davis’ recall proponents. Schwarzenegger revoked the VLF shortly after his inauguration in autumn 2003.
“Had Schwarzenegger not discontinued the VLF, there would be no budget shortfall at all at this point,” said Murphy, who also suggested to the board that they team with other districts in the state to declare financial insolvency. “There are only two (financial intervention) teams, so they can’t cover all of us.”
That suggestion, as well as board member Rikki Horne’s “radical idea” about possibly using some of the district’s reserve funds, was not well-received by Baird or assistant superintendent of business, Dannielle Pusatere.
“Typically, the reserve is there for unplanned, unforeseen circumstances, said Pusatere with visible alarm. “As chief financial officer for this district, I do not recommend you use your reserves.”
Fields asked Baird to bring an in-depth report about how school district reserve funds may be used and repayment timelines to the next board meeting April 22.
Some of the board members wanted to pull items from consideration in the cuts. Horne proposed removing library cuts. Pauline Mercado wanted all school closures and the lunch program off the hit list. After much discussion, a majority was never produced. “I want to make this clear; I’m not happy with these cuts either, but if you take them off the table, they stay off the table,” said Baird. The board decided to allow staff to continue studying the different cut options –– at least until the next meeting –– before items were removed from consideration.
Baird later gave a report on the findings of the configuration committee, which has been researching data about school site grade level groupings for curricular purposes for months. Many parents in the past meetings have voiced support for establishing kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools in lieu of elementary school closures.
When the district chose to look into changing school configurations, they were looking to see if the change would improve the educational experience for its students. In studying the impact and implementation of kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, the committee found that a switchover would produce many restrictions in the educational options of its students in relation to course flexibility, special education and remediation services, as well as create incompatibilities with current staff members.
The research suggested that K- through-eight schools were more effective in large districts with higher populations. Baird expects to be able to post the full configuration report on the district’s web site,, in the near future.
By the end of the four-and-a-half-hour meeting, it seemed fairly obvious that whatever the decisions by the board, it will result in unhappy people. “The five of you have the most difficult decisions to make of anyone in this valley,” Baird told the board members.
Editor’s Note: Joe Murphy is married to reporter, Sondra Murphy. As with all persons quoted within this story, his views are not those of the Ojai Valley News.

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