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Santa Barbara School District Budget on $4 Million Cutting Edge

This year's projected cuts dwarf last year's. Early retirement incentives may be offered to teachers.

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If last year’s $2 million in budget cuts was gut-wrenching for the Santa Barbara School District, the need to carve out $4 million more this spring should be, well, twice as bad.

Or maybe even worse.

On Tuesday, in a sign that this year’s misery could significantly dwarf that of last year, Santa Barbara school officials held a news conference to warn that cuts are coming. Last year, there was no such media event.

This year’s need for reductions stems largely from California’s ongoing budget crisis. In January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled a proposal to make across-the-board budget cuts to help reduce a $14.5 deficit. About $4 billion of the retrenchments would come from education.

“When the governor’s budget proposal came out, it was obvious it was historic,” Superintendent Brian Sarvis said Tuesday. “Those are the largest cuts in the history of education.”

The cuts would amount to about 4 percent of the Santa Barbara district’s discretionary budget for the 2008-09 school year. Sarvis on Tuesday declined to say how many layoffs might be necessary.

To be sure, Schwarzenegger’s proposal could look much different by the time the Legislature is done picking it apart. But Schwarzenegger won’t unveil his revision of the proposal until mid-May. Meanwhile, school districts by law must distribute layoff notices to teachers by mid-March.

There’s another reason this year’s cuts could be more than twice as painful as last year’s: When it comes to teacher layoffs, last year’s cuts really weren’t so bad.

Although 60 teachers received layoff notices last spring, when the dust finally settled, the number of teachers actually laid off amounted to a grand total of one. This year, if the dire assumptions hold true, it’s difficult to imagine how the district could avoid mass layoffs, given how salaries make up nearly 90 percent of the budget.

On Tuesday, however, Sarvis did say the district is looking at offering incentives to teachers for early retirement. This would save money because veteran teachers can cost the district nearly $80,000, while rookie educators make little more than $40,000.

“We’re looking at that, and polling our staff to see if people are interested,” he said.

Despite the impending bloodshed, this year’s process has witnessed at least one positive difference: Across the board, district employees, board members and union representatives seem more confident about the accuracy of the budget numbers.

Last fall, the district’s chief business executive resigned, several months after the embarrassing discovery of a surplus that led the school board to restore some of the cuts it had just made.

The business official has been replaced by Eric Smith, a temporary hire who has worked with school districts all over the state.

In contrast to last year, when the unions openly questioned the trustworthiness and accuracy of the district’s budget projections, on Tuesday the suited-up Sarvis and Smith were joined by Brian Tanguay, president of the classified union, which represents nonteaching staff.

“Mr. Smith is sort of the bright light at the end of our budget tunnel,” Tanguay said. “I’m hoping this time around, it will be a little more cooperative, although it’s not going to be any less painful.”

Last year, before the restorations, the board actually made $2.5 million in cuts.

But after the budget error was discovered, the district restored about $500,000 worth of programs, Sarvis said. Those restorations translated into bringing back all of the teaching positions that were cut from junior-high elective programs such as band, foreign languages and theater, school board member Nancy Harter said.

For the most part, the cuts that remain in place directly affect far fewer students.

The biggest one affected professional development: The district no longer pays substitute teachers to cover for classroom teachers who opt to attend more than the state-funded five conferences or seminars aimed at enhancing their skills. Another large cut targeted administration: La Cuesta Continuation High School lost an assistant principal position.

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