School district faces dire financial straights

Incoming Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District PTA Council President Kelly Pye, seen here before the Board of Education Thursday last week, was officially passed the torch by Sharon Davis. Michale Aushenker / TMT

The head of the financial oversight committee says the district faces up to a $5 million deficit if the governor’s state tax extensions do not pass. Meanwhile, the board debates how to deal with nursing staff shortages.

By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times

The head of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s Financial Oversight Committee warned the Board of Education last week that the district is facing dire financial straights. The district’s budget deficit has heavily affected staffing and other areas of local schools, including the reduction of nursing staff.

Three schoolteachers were laid off earlier this year, including one at Malibu High School, and 11 more employees of the district in the Child Development Services Department were laid off last month.

The district has been bracing itself for the probability that state funding will drop significantly in the next school year if the state Legislature does not extend $5 billion worth of taxes for next year.

In a review of the 2010-11 year, Carol Wagner, head of the Financial Oversight Committee, discussed how, in the past year, the district experienced $7.1 million in cuts because of the state budget crisis. She said helping to bridge that shortfall was $1.3 million that came thanks to federal funding to schools provided by President Obama, $5.5 million from Measures Y and YY, and $1.5 million fundraised by parents, teachers and students.

However, Wagner warned that “the budget crisis continues,” and a Financial Enhancement Committee has been pulled together to problem-solve in order to anticipate problems with the 2011-12 budget, which may experience a $4 million to $5 million deficit.

“We definitely don’t have this reserve of $310 per student [needed],” Wagner said. “We would like to see a balance. To see revenues exceed or equal our expenses.”

Some of the ways Wagner suggested to address the upcoming school year was to “look toward successful models at other schools” and to “focus on fundraising and collaborate with the PTA” to achieve this. The September meeting will kick off fundraising for the district.

The school board voted last month to explore placing an emergency parcel tax proposal before Santa Monica and Malibu voters to help alleviate the budget crisis.

“Unfortunately, we’re going to have to make very difficult decisions,” Wagner warned, if financial needs are not met, including increasing class sizes.

Board haggles over nursing staff numbers

In a money-saving effort, the board has proposed reducing the number of district nurses and replacing them with a combination of less expensive (though not as extensively trained) licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) and health clerks. The distinction between the LVNs and the health clerks is that LVNs have some college training while health clerks do not.

Last week, the board approved a plan to save the current 9.6 nurses for the district, with the flexibility to employ Superintendent Tim Cuneo’s alternative 9.0 plan that would include less LVNs and more health clerks. Cuneo’s goal, he said, is to “improve what we had within our existing budget and anticipate alternatives.”

The nuance of the superintendent’s plan over the existing plan largely consisted of replacing the two part-time LVNs with full-time health clerks. Cuneo reasoned that full-time health care staff at the schools would provide the necessary consistency and stability over part-timers. Such health clerks will be trained by nurses and LVNs. Presently, a school nurse costs about $100,000 per hire. An LVN or health clerk costs the district $55,000 per hire.

During public commentary, school medical professionals, including Claudia Landis, unanimously urged the board to keep the 9.6 plan in fear of losing a quality of medical attention. Two speakers called for a long-term plan and a master plan for the districtwide health care system.

“An LVN costs about the same as a health clerk,” Landis said. “What are we gaining by hiring a health clerk?”

The board responded that it is more difficult to find quality LVNs.

Cuneo agreed LVNs would be better over health clerks, but he added, “We’re viewing this as a starting point, to see how the construction works and test the market to see if we can allow [this plan to work].”

Board member Oscar De la Torre supported keeping the ad hoc committee’s 9.6 plan: “I appreciate the superintendent’s proposal, but it would be better to keep the whole now.”

However, Cuneo said, “My recommendation is essentially the same thing … It still puts the same number of health professionals on the ground.”

Board member Laurie Lieberman agreed with Cuneo, saying she was “scared of the part-time people” suggested by the 9.6 plan and echoed the need for consistency and continuity of medical staff.

“If [the health clerks] do their job full time, they’ll learn their job better,” and including the health clerks will make it “easier to hire people,” she said.

Ultimately, the board ushered in Superintendent Cuneo’s suggestion that the 9.6 nurse plan be maintained with the flexibility to use his plan.

Board waives substance abuse probation for graduation

Another point on the board’s agenda concerned students who were on probation for drug and alcohol use. Cuneo supported an interim measure to waive a 10-week probation period for eighth graders and high school seniors who have been suspended due to drug and alcohol issues in order to allow them to take part in promotion and graduation activities, respectively.

“I’m glad that we have this temporary measure,” Board member Nimish Patel said.

However, Lieberman expressed skepticism. “I feel it’s putting the cart before the horse,” she said. “We have to come to some agreement with the philosophies of our overall [attitude] toward discipline.”

Student board member Tanya Choo of Santa Monica High School believed that approving such an action to “promote a positive outcome” sends a mixed signal.

“Š By waiving this, it promotes the wrong message,” she said. “It almost says it’s OK to do drugs and alcohol because the consequences aren’t so bad.”

Some board members echoed Choo’s sentiments. However, they passed the temporary measure with the caveat that a permanent plan must to be developed by graduation 2012. Board members appointed Marolyn Freedman, director of Student Services, to lead a group to formulate a plan.

Also during last week’s meeting, exiting PTA Council President Shari Davis passed the torch to incoming President Kelly Pye last week. The board also doled out commendations to outgoing Santa Monica student board members Choo and Billy Foran, and Malibu High’s teen ambassador, Elizabeth Wilson.