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    AUSD Board passes budget

    By Barbara Grady-Ayer

    After a tumultuous planning season amidst the state’s financial crisis, the Albany Unified School District board of education passed a budget Tuesday night for the 2009-2010 school year. It will spend $46.8 million to educate 3,846 students in five different schools, enduring an 18 percent cut in state funding by getting by with fewer teachers, janitors and secretaries as well curtailed arts, drama, and athletic programs.

    But the district managed to save some key positions and academic programs that were once on the chopping block thanks to a federal Stimulus grant of $987,023 and contributions from the community of $288,000 raised by SchoolCARE. Administrators said they anticipate other fundraising groups will soon announce donations, too.

    Also, by deciding to use parcel tax revenues to fund basic needs instead of supplemental programs, the district salvaged some things the school community considered essential. For instance, the assistant vice principal position at the middle school has been saved, much to the relief of teachers and parents who could not imagine a school of 900 students managing with one administrator.

    The board during its Tuesday meeting accepted SchoolCARE’s $288,000 contribution and the list of what parents, teachers and principals voted to spend it on. Among other things, the SchoolCARE funds will pay for electives at the high school and middle school, allowing the district to reverse a decision to shorten the school day at those schools by eliminating seventh perioed. At the elementary schools, SchoolCARE will fund reading specialists and math intervention specialists.

    Including the Stimulus grant, donations from local fundraising groups and federal support for special education, the total sum Albany schools can spend next year to above $50 million.

    “That’s the good news,” said Laurie Harden, assistant superintendent for business services. The Stimulus money is being used to “backfill” or continue core educational programs, like classroom teaching by paying for teacher salaries. “If we didn’t have that $987,023 we couldn’t maintain core programs,” nor have a required reserve. She said that California’s cuts to public school education this year are “the largest in history.”

    But the federal Stimulus money, SchoolCARE donations and similar contributions are one-time funds for this year only. Because it looks like the economic slump and related budget problems in California may last several years, the board is mulling the possibility of putting an emergency parcel tax on the November ballot to support schools in 2010, 2011 and 2012 or however long the slump lasts.

    To help make that decision, it heard the results of a survey conducted in Albany by volunteers interested in putting a parcel tax on the ballot next November as a way to save schools from further changes. Miriam Walden, a board member and leader of the volunteer effort, said of 148 respondents to the survey, an overwhelming majority expressed worries about adequate school funding and indicated a willingness to support a parcel tax. Less clear was how much of a tax they would support. A proposed parcel tax of $150 a year per household or parcel was considerably more welcome than a proposed tax of $250 a year per household or parcel, Walden said.

    Superintendent Marla Stephenson said that since Albany’s 2005 parcel tax will expire in a few years, Albany schools would be in deep water if a new or renewed parcel tax were not passed soon. In the budget just passed, the 2005 parcel taxes are being used to fund core academic classes and teaching positions that the state is abandoning in its 18 percent cut.

    “I cannot overstate how important it is for us to make the 2005 parcel tax permanent,” or extend beyond its expiration day, Stephenson said.

    Hundreds of school districts around California have passed new parcel taxes this year as a way to survive the state budget cuts to education, which amount to $1,150 per student. In so doing, California schools are beginning a subtle shift towards more local control of education, Walden noted, now that the state government has shown it is willing to abandon education to meet budget numbers.

    But no future parcel tax measure will help for the year starting in September. That is why the fundraising groups have been so diligent this year.

    The Albany Music Fund, at last check, was close to raising enough money to restore music at the elementary schools.

    The SchoolCARE money will be used to “rescue” – as one board member said – teaching positions and programs that parents and teachers and principals in surveys have deemed essential to a decent education but which were on the chopping block.

    Specifically, SchoolCARE donations, along with a willingness by the Albany Teachers Association to increase the load of students taught by each teacher, will allow Albany High School and Albany Middle School to continue to offer an elective period and thus a full school day. The AUSD budget passed would have eliminated the seventh period or elective period at these schools. That possibility spurred many people to action because the elective period is when many advanced AP courses as well as vocational courses are offered, two areas that make Albany High School distinctive.

    Meanwhile, the reading specialists and math intervention specialists that SchoolCARE money will fund at Cornell, OceanView and Marin will allow the classroom teachers more time to focus on the class as a whole. SchoolCare will also pay for one counselor at the middle school, one college/career advisor at the high school and supplement the salary of a counselor for MacGregor High School and help its culinary arts program.

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