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    Albany school district looks at how to save school programs

    By Barbara Grady-Ayer

    Even as the days count down to the May 19 election that will decide whether California schools must endure yet further spending cuts, the Albany school district has set up a tentative plan for how it would restore programs should it be able to reallocate money to meet priorities in the wake of a drastic reduction to its budget

    In a document proposed by Superintendent of Schools Marla Stephenson and being discussed by the board, the district lists school safety as its highest priority. Accordingly, Stephenson and the board hope to restore the vice principal position at Albany Middle School and yard duty aides at the three elementary schools and MacGregor High School with general fund spending.

    After safety, the district’s next priorities would be to restore a seventh period to Albany High School and expand the English language learning program at all schools. Seventh period is when high school students take electives and advanced placement courses, the types of opportunities that distinguish Albany High School and prepare students for college. The English language learner program is important because it represents the district’s commitment to providing equal access to the curriculum, according to the superintendent. (Click here to read the details of the document on page 70.)

    The possibility of restoring programs the Board once voted to cut arises because the state has loosened up regulations on how local school districts spend their money. After taking billions of dollars away from public school districts last February, the California legislature tried to compensate for that loss by freeing up regulations on how districts spend some of the money they receive in so-called “categorical grants.” Only a few categories such as special education would still be required.

    A second source of funds the district might be able to use to restore programs is the Albany’s 2005 parcel tax. The language of that parcel tax allows some flexibility in how revenue is spent after two requirements are met: providing a librarian for each of the five schools in the district and providing mental health services.

    A third source of funds that might allow the district to restore some programs is from the community fundraising going on by non-profit education groups in Albany.

    However, all hopes for restoring programs might be dashed if voters defeat the propositions on the California ballot on May 19. Passage of the ballot measures, specifically 1A, 1B and 1C were part of the budget deal state legislators reached in February after months of deadlock on how to solve a huge state deficit. In addition to uncertainty about the measures passing, Sacramento has been hinting lately that the state’s financial problems are worsening. Governor Schwarzenegger’s office has said a deficit has been developing of between $15 billion to $21 billion as a result of declining state tax revenues.

    “It now appears that the State’s budget crisis is deepening and they will be looking to us for additional cuts — perhaps as must as $600 more per student,” said Albany School Board member Miriam Walden this week. “Also, if California ballot Measures 1a, 1b and 1c fail, there will be additional cuts. So, the real possibility is that we may not be able to restore any of the tiers.”

    She hand other board members said they feel their hands are tied.

    “This is an awful, awful situation. The state should know that we cannot provide a safe and sound education that meets all of their requirements without the funds they have taken from us,” Walden said.

    Board member Patricia Low said, “the board and staff are under a great deal of pressure to be fiscally conservative due to the uncertainty of what will happen following the May 19th special election and news that additional state cuts in education will be implemented.”

    Low said the schools need the community’s support.

    “We appreciate the support, input and patience of the community as we establish priorities for funding programs in the face of so many unknowns,” she said. “While we are mandated to adopt a budget in June, all the information about state revenues and cuts to education may not be known until late in the summer.”

    Stephenson recommended that the board provide the librarians to each school as directed by the 2005 parcel tax language and expand mental health services. Beyond those two requirements, she would like to see the board try to use the remaining parcel tax money of up to $1.5 million to restore core programs and services at the schools, like the safety personnel and the seventh period courses.

    She also said the district’s chances for surviving this year rest on how it uses the categorical funds. “I am advising that we make maximum use of the categorical flexibility authority in 2008-2009 through 2012-13. This will provide maximum flexibility since the final shoe has yet to drop in the economic crisis.”

    Article by Barbara Grady.

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