June 5 will be a critical day for local schools. Voters will decide whether to save the locally funded music, arts, math, science and technology programs that our community put in place four years ago.
While the Santa Barbara Unified School District has faced horrible cuts to our general budget during the economic downturn, one bright spot has been the continuation of electives and enrichment courses that many other districts across the state axed long ago. Local revenue from parcel taxes that voters approved in 2008 has kept class sizes smaller, provided music teachers in all of our elementary schools, funded foreign language classes, and provided critical equipment such as computers and microscopes to our students.
But these parcel taxes will expire at the end of the next school year. As a result, the school board has placed Measure W for junior high and high schools and Measure X for Santa Barbara elementary schools before the voters. These measures will deliver $16 million over four years to our students and our classrooms, and will keep critical programs alive.
District resources cannot be used to campaign for the measures, but school board members and staff can explain the reasoning behind placing the parcel taxes on the ballot.
In researching the decision to renew the parcel taxes, the school board asked the public to weigh in on priorities. As a result, the secondary schools measure (W) will also now support career/technical courses that are key to giving junior high and high school students 21st-century job skills. Such skills ensure students can compete in today’s job market. Programs such as automotive technology, engineering, business and finance, computer science, culinary arts, construction, media arts and health science cannot thrive or reach our whole student population without funding.
The parcel taxes come with strict restrictions: None of the money can be used for administrative salaries; citizen oversight committees must monitor spending; senior citizens may claim an exemption for their home; and the measures will once again expire in four years.
Each tax is $54 a year. Our elementary and secondary districts unified last year, but the elementary and secondary boundaries are honored when the taxes are levied. All residents residing from Montecito to Goleta will vote for Measure W; if you live in the city of Santa Barbara you will also be voting on Measure X, and would pay for each measure. To pass, these measures will require a two-thirds majority vote. It is a steep hill to climb.
It is hard for school districts to predict the future of the bulk of our funding, which comes from the state. We can thank folks in Sacramento for a funding model that is as dysfunctional as it gets (even experts have trouble wrapping their heads around the process). California ranks 47th in the nation in per-pupil spending.
It has been almost four years since I joined the Santa Barbara Board of Education. When people ask me how it’s going, I often respond, “I’ve become an expert at budget cutting.” During this time we’ve cut more than $20 million from our general fund. The vast majority of this fund is dedicated to human resources: teachers, nurses, custodians, clerical workers and principals. These are the folks who get up every day to make sure our children come to safe classrooms, filled with excitement and learning.
Our district has worked hard to mitigate the damage of state cuts, and we have used every resource to find stable funding for our schools. The generosity of our community, combined with sacrifices by our staff, helps keep vital programs and personnel. But because of state cuts, our staff will face seven furlough days in the next school year — representing a significant pay cut — and our students will have five fewer days of class. Unthinkable, really, but true. The district may be able to rescind at least some of the furloughs pending statewide voter action come November, but this is something over which we have little control.
But we do have control of revenues raised locally. The Santa Barbara Education Foundation is spearheading the campaign to pass the parcel taxes, and community leaders, business organizations and people from all walks of life and political perspectives have come together to support the measures. Only local money, like the parcel taxes, is guaranteed funding for our schools. This is one way our community can have a voice. This is one way we can decide what is best for our students.
— Susan Deacon is president of the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education.