By Barbara Grady-Ayer
California’s huge budget deficit, the dithering of state legislators whose inaction allowed the deficit to climb, the Governor’s disrespect for laws about funding education, and the deep national recession have come to roost in Albany.
These big problems created by adults will soon be placed at the feet of school children trying to learn to read and do algebra.
The Albany Unified School District needs to cut its budget by 15 percent or about $2.2 million dollars this school year, Albany Superintendent of Schools Marla Stephenson told the board of education Tuesday night. School districts need to live within the means set by the state, and in the absence of legislative action, she said, the district can only go by the budget proposed in December by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In that proposal, the governor ignores the requirements set in law by Proposition 98 on funding education, wiping away about $5 billion owed to the state’s public schools. His budget proposal also eliminates cost-of-living-adjustments for rising costs in school utilities, salaries and supplies.
“We are facing unprecedented difficulties,” Stephenson said. “This is not of your making and not of our making. It is the state of California’s making and the recession,” she told the board. Nonetheless, the district has to plan accordingly.
The Albany Unified School District has been carrying a significant financial reserve of 8 percent and, as recently as October 1, the district thought this reserve could cover whatever cuts came from the state. However since that time, the financial markets collapsed, consumer spending dried up and home sales all but stopped, resulting in a precipitous drop in sales taxes and other revenues to the state.
“What a difference a few months can make,” Stephenson said. “The reduction in revenue is incredible.”
Albany can no longer count on its past reserve because it is not enough. If we were to use it all to cover costs for this year, then the reserve would be wiped to zero for next year. The state requires districts to carry at least a 3 percent reserve. So it has to cut what she estimates to be about $2.2 million in expenses.
Stephenson did not propose specific programs or services to be cut in her presentation to the board last night. Instead, to her credit, Stephenson suggested that decisions by made through involving school principals, teachers and parents in the hard choices about what the schools could live without. To that end she said she will mail a letter to parents this week and plans to meet with school principals.
The biggest problem is there is no evident fat in the AUSD budget. One has only to see the crowded hallways and classrooms at Albany High School or watch the over-worked janitors at Cornell and Marin elementary schools to realize that. One has only to listen to teachers asking parents to please bring in some sharpened pencils and tissues or to donate books to the school library to know that dollars are already stretched tightly in Albany schools.
One possibility Stephenson suggested was that the AUSD could look for spending flexibilities in the three parcel taxes Albany voters have passed since 1987 and hopefully use parcel tax monies to maintain programs. In the end, she wants voters to help make decisions.
“We will need to develop some sort of broad process for you to receive this information from the community,” Stephenson told the board of education. “At the end of the day you will receive a recommendation from me.”
The school board agreed with her idea of shared decision making to find cuts that would be the least painful to schools and students. Board member Miriam Walden advocated that layoffs try to be avoided and that equipment and one-time programs be cut before staff positions. Several board members spoke agreement with that idea.