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School Board Begins ‘Painful’ Task of Cutting $6 Million

As the district faces its fourth round of cuts, officials say they have no choice but to consider previously protected programs and staffing

In a clear example of how California’s economic woes are coming home to roost, the Santa Barbara school board on Tuesday night began the painful process of slashing $6 million from its $120 million budget for the 2010-11 school year.

It marks the fourth consecutive year the board has been forced to retrench, so this year’s cuts could hit closer to the classroom — with potentially dozens of teacher layoffs, larger class sizes, cutbacks to summer school, the elimination of school crossing guards, layoffs of school psychologists, and even longer response times for maintenance requests to fix faulty outlets or broken toilets.

“Given this is our fourth round of cuts, all the things that were priorities to cut have already been cut,” school board member Annette Cordero said. “So now we’re getting to the things we tried to save in all those other rounds. It is painful.”

Year by year, the cuts have taken quite a toll. The K-12 school system’s total budget has shrunk to $120 million from $165 million in 2006-07.

The cuts come at a time when California’s budget seems — for the second year in a row — to be headed off a cliff, with lawmakers in Sacramento facing a $20 billion hole. What’s more, school officials say Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hasn’t been a trustworthy protector of public education.

On Tuesday, Santa Barbara Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith accused Schwarzenegger of reneging on a promise he made during the State of the State address to protect public education from another “devastating” round of cuts.

“Two days later, the governor unveiled his budget plan for 2010-11, and the pledge to protect public education was nowhere to be found,” Smith said.

Most of the cuts in Santa Barbara would be felt in the junior high and high schools. The elementary district — unlike the secondary district — doesn’t have a structural deficit to correct. On Tuesday, administrators gave the board a list of potential cuts. The board is scheduled to make the cuts on Feb. 23.

The most sweeping proposal would increase class sizes to either 33 or 35 students, depending on the school. Currently, average class sizes at the middle and high schools range from 25 to 30. This would translate into the loss of about 45 full-time teachers and a savings of $3.3 million.

The only suggestion sparking an organized outcry Tuesday night was one calling for eliminating up to five of the district’s 18 school psychologists. The move would save $419,600. A handful of psychologists made their case before the board.

One of them, Juan Gallardo, said that cutting five psychologists would damage the special-education department, which last year suffered a protracted leadership meltdown — not to mention a PR nightmare — from which the district has only recently begun to recover.

“It will translate into assessment plans that are not mailed, assessments not completed within time lines, letters from parents that do not receive replies (and) behavior support plans that are not completed,” he said. “You may not understand all of our terminology, but what you will understand is these requirements are mandated by state and federal law, which will be broken and found out of compliance.”

Gallardo and at least one other psychologist also made passing reference to a disturbing local trend: an increase in teen suicides.

Another potential cut — eliminating funding for school crossing guards — hinted at some friction between the school board and the City Council. The $112,000 annual cost used to be covered by the Santa Barbara Police Department, but the city withdrew its funding in August because of its own budget woes. The schools agreed to pick up the tab for one year.

“Staff believes that the provision of crossing guards is a public safety function, and such, is the responsibility of the SBPD,” school administrators said in a staff report.

School board member Kate Parker said the city should be able to pay for the guards.

“The city rather blithely proposed last spring that when they cut this, we would supply PTA volunteers to cross our students,” she said. “Given the liability and the risks to students and to PTAs, we just couldn’t imagine any parent organization — volunteer organization — taking this on.”

Parker added that the city has “restricted funding” to support school crossing guards. “I really think that we need to take this back to the city,” she said.

Even cuts that on paper appear dry turn out to be somewhat close to the classroom. A proposal to reduce the “restricted maintenance account” by one-third — saving $1.2 million — most likely would mean that necessary fixes would be slower in coming.

“Things that aren’t affecting safety are going to be further down the list,” facilities director David Hetyonk said. “Light fixtures in the classroom that need a ballast won’t be done right away. There may be electrical outlets that aren’t working that won’t be fixed right away. There may be peeling lead paint that may not be addressed as soon as it should have. There may be toilets that aren’t working that don’t get fixed for a longer period of time than what it takes now.”

“That bothers me dramatically,” school board President Ed Heron said.

Other potential cuts:

» Charging fees for Associated Student Body bookkeepers to cover district processing costs ($188,950)

» Eliminating K-6 Home School Santa Barbara program ($200,000)

» Eliminating elementary summer school ($85,000)

» Eliminating two junior high assistant principal positions ($219,000)

» Reorganizing child development program and eliminating one coordinator ($114,000)

» Eliminating the community service portion of the three Career Center technicians at each high school ($86,500)

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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