Out-of-town financial experts delivered bad news to the Santa Barbara school board this week: This spring, it may have to cut as much as $4 million from its $100 million budget.
The analysts, who were brought in from Sacramento to help the Santa Barbara school district get through a budget crisis, qualified their report by calling it a worst-case scenario that could change in a month.
But the news nonetheless means many Santa Barbara teachers, like last year, will probably receive layoff-warning slips by mid-March.
The analysts, who work for the consulting group School Services of California, said a dour state budget is largely to blame, although they also cited Santa Barbara’s declining student enrollment.
School Services analyst Sheila Vickers said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in an attempt to balance California’s budget, unveiled a 2008-09 proposal earlier this month that is “very devastating to education.”
“Education (across California) is being shorted over $4 billion in his proposal,” she told the board at Tuesday night’s meeting. “You are definitely not alone.”
The news comes at a time when morale is already sagging in the district, due largely to the bungled budget that led to the need for Tuesday’s School Services report in the first place.
Last summer, budget officials discovered a $5 million surplus several months after the board had made $2 million in cuts — mostly to the arts and music. Many of the programs were restored, and the two top budget officials resigned.
Since then, the district has hired an interim chief business official, Eric Smith, to help straighten out the district’s finances. It also brought in School Services.
The School Services analysts also advised the school board to boost the salary of the chief business official position, even as the board prepares to make deep cuts in programs, in order to attract a highly qualified candidate.
Vickers said the average going rate for a chief business official in the state is $156,000, at least $16,000 more than the job pays in Santa Barbara.
“You are going to need to invest in some areas while cutting in others,” Vickers said. “It is very difficult to get experienced sitting CBOs (chief business officials) to move from where they are at.”
The analysts tempered the bad news about the cuts by saying Schwarzenegger’s proposal is a “first salvo” that most surely will be challenged by powerful entities such as the California Teachers Association. Schwarzenegeer will release a revised budget proposal in mid-May.
The analysts, meanwhile, will come back to the board with more information in a month.
“The thing about multiyear projections is tomorrow you’re going to be smarter than today,” School Services analyst John Gray said.
Smith was careful to steer blame away from the budget personnel, pointing out that their hard work has long been undermined by outdated software. This has forced them to work harder than necessary for results that were sometimes less than adequate, he said.
“It’s not because people weren’t doing their jobs or trying their best,” Smith said. “They are beating their head against the wall because they are dealing with systems that don’t meet industry standards. It’s like sending a carpenter out with bad tools.”
School board members seemed distressed by the prospect of more budget cuts, but trustee Nancy Harter said there is a silver lining this time.
“The only good news right now is I feel really confident about the financial information we’re getting,” she said Wednesday. “We might have to make unhappy decisions, but we will be making those decisions with solid information.”