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Hall Pass: John Koetzner, who has worked in Santa Rosa schools for 27 years, may be out of a job come May 15.

School of Hard Knocks

Schools struggle to bridge the budget gap

By Joy Lanzendorfer

Montgomery High School librarian John Koetzner may not have a job after May 15. On that day, school districts all around the state will let employees know who will be keeping their jobs and who will be either moved to another position or out of work completely.

Koetzner knows his position is up for possible elimination because he received a preliminary notice on March 15 telling him so. State law requires all districts to inform anyone by that date if their position is being considered for termination.

The law also requires boards to inform employees of final decisions by May 15. This year, because of the uncertainty surrounding the budget crisis, schools were forced to prepare for the worst by sending notices to more people than they will lay off, leaving many employees in limbo.

Koetzner knows he won't be laid off completely. With 27 years of teaching under his belt, his longevity ensures that he will still have some sort of position at Montgomery High. He might be in the library part-time, or, since he taught English for many years, he may be back in the classroom.

"If I move into a teaching position, it will probably bump some other younger teacher out of a job," he says. "Either way, someone ends up losing out. And the lack of librarians will be hard on the students and other teachers. Librarians are a dynamic part of the school process."

Piner High School's librarian, Tony Sousa, also received notice that she may lose her job after May 15. But she may also keep her job or be moved to part-time status or to another department. She just doesn't know.

"I hope the school board is working on behalf of the teachers and librarians," she says. "I have to have faith that there are some people representing us. I'm not privy to the meetings between the unions and the school boards, so I don't know. But I hope they are."

While most school employees don't blame the school administration, the uncertainty of their situations is still putting them in a difficult place emotionally.

"The people who received notices will be in limbo until at least May 15," says David Stirrat, a teacher at Casa Grande High School who did not receive a temporary notice in March. "The human toll is the hard part. Teaching is a hard job, and it's been a hard year anyway. For a teacher, getting a pink slip is like a slap in the face. Even if that person understands logically why the district had to do it this way, it still feels like you're being told that you're not wanted or needed."

There's no doubt about it: It's a bleak time for education across the state. Every day there seems to be more bad news. Teachers, librarians, and counselors may lose their jobs; class sizes will probably increase; music and art programs might be cut; other programs, from school counseling to healthcare to reading programs, are on the chopping block. On top of that, some districts are losing students and, consequently, money.

Still, many are asking if there are other options besides cutting resources. Could more administration be cut, or could districts share more costs among each other? Are certain programs being overlooked that should be considered for cuts? Could some of Sonoma County's 40 school districts be combined, eliminating excessive and duplicate administration and leading to a more efficient system overall?

Education is important; all the politicians say so. In 1998 Governor Gray Davis made education his "top priority," saying he planned to "restore our public schools to greatness by raising our expectations of students, increasing funding, and requiring more parent-teacher-student interaction." In 2002 it was his top priority again, with plans to "continue improving our schools by reducing class sizes, providing incentives for higher student performance."

But a sluggish economy, the energy debacle, and other factors led to the current budget crisis, and now the governor has a $35 billion budget gap to fill. As a result, California schools are facing a $5.4 billion cut, which is large enough to trickle down to every public school in the state.

Local school districts are facing a variety of cuts depending on the size of their budget. Santa Rosa City Schools, for example, is looking at cutting between $9 million and $12 million from its $127 million budget. Petaluma City Schools will have to trim $2.6 million from its $55 million budget. Old Adobe Union School District will probably have to cut $900,000 from its $13.8 million budget.

Each district is preparing for the cuts in different ways, but some things are common among them. Since 75 percent to 85 percent of most school budgets are made up of personnel costs, most districts had to look at laying off teachers and other employees who work directly with students.

At this point, 344 teachers in Sonoma County have received lay-off warnings. In some cases, the cuts will just affect temporary teachers. In other cases, as in Santa Rosa City Schools, 50 teachers have opted for early retirement, reducing the number of teachers to be laid off, but most library and counselor positions might still be eliminated. Petaluma City Schools sent out notices to 74 teachers, including 49 in full-time positions, but will probably lay off closer to 10 to 20 teachers.

The problem is that even now no one really knows what's going to happen. Generally, the state doesn't allow schools much time to plan for budget problems because it waits until midyear to inform them about next year's budget. This year is particularly bad because the state is requiring schools to have completed budgets by June 30, when the state itself may not have a budget by then. In other words, the law requires districts to make decisions based on information they do not have.

By March 15, most districts didn't know how big the cuts would be or how they would handle the problem. But since they were required by law to inform anyone they might lay off by that date, they sent notices to more employees than necessary to cover the worst possible scenario.

"When it came to laying off the teachers, educators were saying to the state, 'OK, give us some leeway on the March 15 deadline,'" says Sandy Hill, assistant superintendent of human resources for Petaluma City Schools. "But the state wouldn't do it. It's very difficult to make these decisions without the right information. And even now, there's still some things we don't know about, like whether the class size reduction is going to be in the budget or not, which will have a huge impact on the budget if it is."

However reasonable the district's actions, the layoffs have caused a lot of controversy as teachers and employees responded to their pink slips. Many were upset with how their district made its decisions. For example, when choosing which teachers to possibly lay off, Petaluma looked at whether the teacher had the CLAD certification, a state requirement that helps teachers with non-English-speaking students. Because CLAD certification is a new requirement, many teachers don't have it yet and felt it was an unfair criterion.

"Some teachers with five years' classroom experience without the CLAD were given notices, while others with two years' classroom experience but have the CLAD were not," says Stirrat. "It seems like the district sent notices to people with the CLAD and then realized their mistake and sent out more notices, and ended up compounding one mistake with another."

The district admits that they sent out two batches of notices before March 15 but says it had nothing to do with the CLAD test.

While some are focusing on who may be laid off, others are questioning what the district is cutting in the first place and wondering if there are other options that have been overlooked.

"Everyone always says we should avoid impacting the classrooms," says Koetzner. "But then you look around at what's being cut, and it's all things that affect the classroom, like reducing librarians, counselors, and teachers. It makes me wonder if the budget is being questioned enough."

In the case of Santa Rosa City Schools, despite the budget cuts and plans to lay off personnel, some programs remain untouched and new ones may soon be created. But there seem to be good reasons for it all. For example, one program that is untouched is Project Achieve, which was designed to raise student academic achievement. Though the program adds additional testing on top of state-required testing, its costs are relatively minimal, only around $25,000-$30,000 per year.

Then there is Santa Rosa's reorganization plan, which is in the beginning stages and includes many different proposals. Some of these include the new west-side middle school and the controversial "newcomer" school, a voluntary one-year program that would offer non-English-speaking students an opportunity for English-only instruction.

While a budget crisis may not seem the time to take on new projects, reorganization is important for the school district because students are leaving the district in droves. The district estimates that though some new students have entered the district, 1,400 students, particularly from the west side of Santa Rosa, have left for other districts or private schools. And each child that leaves means $4,000-$6,000 less in funding for the schools.

There are a number of reasons students are leaving the Santa Rosa district. Neighborhoods around some of the elementary schools are now "mature," meaning that the children have grown up and left the area. And some of the test scores on the west side are lower than the county average, which has also resulted in less funding. But most commonly, the student flight has been attributed to parents reacting to the high number of non-English-speaking Hispanic students enrolled in the schools.

"Rightly or wrongly, the number of Hispanic students has created a concern in parents that the instruction will not be as good, especially on the elementary-school level," says Santa Rosa School Board president Hugh Futrell. "It may be due to racial stereotypes."

With students leaving and money diminishing, the district has had to look at creating new options to stop the problem. But since reorganization uses existing resources, it is little threat to the budget right now.

A number of ideas have been offered to mitigate the huge sums of money that need to be cut from school budgets. Santa Rosa school officials are proposing a parcel tax measure on the November ballot. More people are also asking why there aren't more cuts in administration.

For instance, some have accused Santa Rosa City Schools of not cutting enough administration, since, according to the Press Democrat, only one school administration position will be cut, saving $116,000. School district officials, however, say that administration has been heavily cut.

"We're trying to reduce administration costs to a minimum," says Futrell. "But to begin with, it runs pretty lean. I can say that the percentage of administrative cuts has been much greater than the cuts to the educational program."

When asked about administrative cuts in the budget, Santa Rosa Assistant Superintendent Doug Bower couldn't say if the administrative cuts had been quantified, but by shuffling through the budget, he was able to count up $500,000.

But if individual administrative cuts either in districts or on school sites have been exhausted, what about combining some of the district administration to generate more money?

Sonoma County has 40 school districts ranging from one school with 11 students to 17 schools with 13,000 students. Of the 58 counties in California, Sonoma County has the fifth highest number of school districts, right behind Kern, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tulare counties, according to the Superior Court of Sonoma County's Grand Jury final report on the public school districts.

Napa County, by contrast, has five school districts, and Marin County has 16. The city of Santa Rosa, with a population of 160,000, has 10 districts alone.

"In the early 1900s, there were actually more school districts in Sonoma County than there [are] now," says Sonoma County Superintendent Carl Wong. "Our county seems to have a cultural history that is community-centered and independent in spirit, which explains all the districts."

And with 40 different sets of administration, it's likely there are some job duplications among the schools. The Grand Jury found that while combining single-school districts would probably not save very much money--each school would still need two principals and separate sites--combining other districts could end up saving quite a chunk of money. Rincon Valley Union School District could save $500,000 if combined with another district, which is also the amount the district will be cutting from its budget next year.

District consolidation seems a good way for schools to save money without disrupting the classroom. The schools would stay basically the same, only management might change. The money that was funding duplicate administrative costs would go to the classrooms instead. And, contrary to popular belief, smaller districts don't necessarily mean better test scores. Multischool districts actually rank higher in academic performance on the elementary school level, according to the Grand Jury.

But others are quick to point out that the larger districts are laying off even more school employees than the smaller districts. Combining districts could mean less innovative changes in education and might risk the loss of educator's individual voices.

"It's not just what is the most efficient way to use educational dollars, but what is the most effective way," says Chris Rafanelli, Rincon Valley School Board member. "I've been a teacher for both large and small districts, and the smaller district was much more responsive to the needs of that specific group of students."

But the debate over how much combining districts would help Sonoma County's budget crisis almost becomes moot when you look at how difficult combining districts is in the first place. Letters of intent must be filed, studies must be conducted, subcommittees formed, reports written, and districts consulted, all before the question ever comes before the voters.

"I think it's absurd that we have so many districts," says Futrell. "Practically, however, it would be very difficult to consolidate the districts. Ideally, it would no doubt help reduce administration costs."

But the Grand Jury is taking steps toward seriously considering consolidating some districts. In the meantime, the jury recommends more cost sharing among the districts.

"After school boards have done everything they can to save money, the local boards of education in this challenging budget climate might decide it's time to talk to another district," he says.

With attempts to trim some of the unnecessary bureaucracy slow in coming, there aren't many options now for schools other than trying to avoid slashing classroom costs as much as possible. But it doesn't look like the problem is going away soon.

"There's nothing more disappointing and difficult for a school board than budget reductions like the ones we are currently making, which we know may affect the classrooms," says Futrell. "It's just something nobody wants to do."

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From the May 1-7, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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