School board unanimously votes against teacher layoffs

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Reassigning administrative positions to teaching status, along with pay cuts, may be the first step in addressing budget crisis.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education members at last week’s board meeting unanimously voted against the proposed layoffs of two music teachers and two school nurses, but is moving forward to notify 16 certificated administrators that they may be released and reassigned to other positions by next school year.

Board members and district officials spent both Wednesday and Thursday last week in late night meetings delving into calculations on how to compensate for what is now calculated as a $6 million deficit by the end of this year, possibly reaching $9 million within the next two years, if permanent budget cuts for the 2009-2010 and subsequent school years are not made.

On Thursday, board members said they were unwilling to approve cuts to a well-renowned music program that would mean an end to third grade music classes or cuts that would affect health services for district students.

“In my view there is the one thing we really do superbly and that’s music,” said board member Jose Escarce before voting against the teacher layoffs. “It could take years to put [the music program] back and other things would take priority when the economy recovers. Tinkering with the music program in any way reduces its attractiveness to teachers, students and families and is a dangerous thing to do.”

The board is hoping to cut $4 million to $6 million from the district budget beginning next school year. A reduction in state funding, which provides more than 70 percent of the district’s budget, will inevitably mean making cuts to programs and personnel in a budget that spends 87 percent on salaries and benefits alone.

The board agreed to reassign seven positions from “shall be” released to “may be” to provide more flexibility in the coming months. The administrators that may be released or reassigned are located at the central district office and at Santa Monica High School. Fourteen of these positions would reassign administrators to teaching status, along with having them take a pay cut.

The district’s visual arts coordinator is included in this list, which, said Cindy Rosmann, chair of the district’s visual and performing arts committee, could present challenges to raising grant money for the district’s art program and in evaluating program efficiency.

Of significant concern to many residents of Santa Monica, many of whom spoke on Wednesday night last week, are proposed cuts to the Santa Monica High School “house system,” specifically in the loss of houses or reassignment of house administrators that could total $550,000 in savings, but, in the opinion of some, take away the small, interactive learning environments at the core of the system.

“In my view these reductions should be more comprehensive, including administrators throughout the whole district in both cities,” said board member Maria Leon Vazquez, who said she was dismayed that no administrator cuts have been proposed yet in Malibu and said she thought the district needed to be looked at as a whole. “Instead, the largest comprehensive high school got hit the hardest,” she said.

Increasing class sizes, now without a significant penalty from the state, could save $1.2 million. Board members have also recommended examining furloughs, which have been implemented at state agencies, as an alternative to layoffs, and looking into hiring freezes of high salaried district employees.

New budget figures have been generated based on the approved state budget, in a $42 billion deficit, that now means mid-year cuts in funding to SMMUSD of $3 million that were not anticipated. Due to the budget crisis, the state has also both reduced and allowed flexible spending on categorical funding, which means the district will be able to use what is estimated at $600,000 in funds earmarked for certain programs like art and gifted education to fuel other services and programs if they so desire. While this could help fill in gaps left by the deficit, it could also hurt certain programs.

Many other variables, however, such as how much the district will receive from the federal stimulus package, are still largely unknown, and the board will likely have to make many of the cuts without a full picture, particularly for future years. While SMMUSD has enough in reserves to buffer this year’s $6 million shortfall, the district risks burning through its reserves to a dangerously low level, said Cynthia Torres, chair of the Financial Oversight Committee, leaving it vulnerable if the state economy does not improve.

The board will continue budget discussions through the spring and will adopt an official budget for 2009-2010 in June.