Local schools face $9 million in budget cuts

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School officials say reductions are likely in materials, athletics, music and staff development.

By Katherine Peach / Special to the Malibu Times

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District leaders met last week to discuss how local schools will adapt to a possible $4 billion in state budget cuts to education.

A group of 30 community members attended the presentation by SMMUSD board members, faculty and students. In addition to the budget cuts, the “State of Our Schools” meeting that took place in the Malibu High School Library also reported on student achievement and district-wide developments.

“We can’t depend on anyone solving it,” Superintendant Tim Cuneo said, “but we’re going to solve it right here. It’s going to take all of us to come together, so that our children can compete in the future.”

This year, the state cut $12 million from the district’s funding. SMMUSD slashed $4.5 million from its budget this school year, but twice that will need to be cut in the next two years, according to the Community for Excellent Public Schools. The California Department of Education released information about a possible $4 billion in cuts next year, statewide.

Local property taxes and the state provide almost 80 percent of local school funding, with more than half coming from the state. Cuneo said further state budget cuts would put more pressure on the district to increase class sizes and reduce the number of school days in a year. Reductions are likely, he said, in materials, athletics, music and staff development.

Malibu High School receives $6,258 per student for the almost 1,200 enrolled. Expenditures per pupil from the state have been below the national average since the late seventies. Schools days can be reduced from 180 to 175, according to California state regulations.

“A very large percentage of our budget comes from our community,” Cuneo said. “All other [state] maneuvers to balance the budget are very poor practices. We can’t do that in our district.”

The Shark Fund, founded in 2003, incorporated local fundraising organizations the Parent Student Teach Association, the Athletic Booster Club and Arts Angels. The non-profit has raised more than $3 million since the first year. Such community support has kept many programs running despite funding challenges.

Malibu High School has 24 advanced placement and honors courses with students consistently scoring higher on tests than other schools in the state. On average, 85 percent of graduates pursue post-secondary studies, according to a MHS report. The district has a long history of successful alumni including actors, politicians and an astronaut.

In light of National Public Schools Month, the meeting showcased a panel of faculty and students who gave insights to the atmosphere and experience at Malibu High School. The group expressed an open relationship between faculty and students that comes from a being a smaller school. Malibu High Senior Erica Posey said the casual atmosphere allows for a rare intimacy.

“It really is incredible how close we can get to the teachers,” Posey said. “The longer I’ve been at the school the less teachers tell us things and the more they start asking us things.”

English teacher Bonnie Thoreson has taught at Malibu High for 13 years and her two children have attended Malibu schools since kindergarten. A shorter school year means prioritizing, she said, asking questions of what is most essential and what can best be sacrificed. Thoreson said the already larger class sizes make individual instruction harder compared to the small numbers in the past.

“What is scary is that the state is still in financial crisis and my understanding is that there are more lean years and cuts to come,” Thoreson said. “Now that all of the non-essentials have been cut, the obvious question is how can more cost cutting occur without impacting the vitality and integrity of our schools?”

SMMUSD Board of Education member Oscar de la Torre said the district has not only prepared students for college, but also has built a sense of community. As a product of the school district, de la Torre said he remembers losing a sense of support from faculty during middle school. The district aims to ease the sometimes forgotten transition from middle to high school.

“We invest in stock and mutual finds; when we invest in education we invest in people,” said de la Torre. “If we keep investing, we will see people return to the community.”