Local school district faces cuts of $3 million

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Funds of more than $800,000 released to the district by Santa Monica City Council may put a dent in cuts.

By Nora Fleming / Special to The Malibu Times

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials called the current district budget situation the “worst of the worst case scenarios” at a school board meeting last week, and said they must cut $3 million from this year’s budget in addition to issuing immediate cost control measures.

The situation, said Janece Maez, district assistant superintendent and chief financial officer, will continue to worsen into the 2009-2010 school year as the state budget is predicted to continue declining. Currently, 90 percent of the SMMUSD budget is spent on personnel costs.

“As I stand here tonight, our state is facing a looming fiscal catastrophe,” said Cynthia Torres, president of the district Financial Oversight Committee, in a presentation to the board. “Our state budget has continued to get worse and our state Legislature has failed to address the fundamental budget imbalance that has existed in California since 2001.”

State budget analysts have predicted a $14.8 billion state deficit by the end of 2008-2009 that will reach $40 billion by the end of 2009-2010. This means SMMUSD must make a permanent cut of $3 million from the 2008-2009 school budget, Torres said.

By 2009-2010, district revenue should decline by a deficit of 9.7 to 16.2 percent, which, absent any remediation, could put the district in a $10.2 million spending deficit, rising to $11.3 million by the following school year.

“We did learn what we were hoping wouldn’t be the case most likely is going to be the case,” Maez said. “We do have our work cut out for us, but we are very pleased to be well supported by the FOC in the commitment to assist us and help us resolve the budget crisis as we go along.”

The committee, under the leadership of Torres, has suggested immediately implementing a hiring freeze, and the possibility of pursuing alternative forms of compensation.

When questioned by the board if this action would be taken now, Maez said there will be no absolute freezes as of yet, but “any vacant position must pass rigorous evaluation before filling.”

Some costs will be offset by the district reserve and $804,000 in recently released funds from the Santa Monica City Council for the district’s actions in remedying issues with its special education program, Torres said.

Harry Keiley, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teacher’s Association, said the teacher’s union has made it a top priority to maintain current staffing in the district through the end of the school year. Keiley said he believes the $20 million in SMMUSD unrestricted reserves would make staff layoffs and classroom cuts unjustified this school year.

He said he is confident the same will apply in 2009-2010.

“At the end of the day, we believe the Board of Education will make children learning in the classroom a priority and keep any reductions furthest from the classroom, students and teachers,” Keiley said, in a follow up interview with The Malibu Times.

Keiley added that currently California ranks 46th to 47th in per pupil spending, which will likely go lower if the state doesn’t make education a priority and suggested the district should look to cutting consulting contracts and expenditures that have no impact on children.

Currently, the teacher’s association is working to get an initiative on a special election ballot this year to raise the state sales tax by a penny, which could raise billions for K-14 education, Keiley said.

Next month, the FOC will host a budget workshop to discuss probable scenarios for the school district’s next year and suggest more cost conservation strategies. The board also passed an early retirement declaration incentive at last week’s meeting, which will be used as a tool for planning the 2009-2010 budget.

Certified and classified employees who have worked in the district for 10 years or more will receive $1,000 if they provide early notification of their retirement plans to the district by Feb. 6.

“We’re attempting to use the tools we have to plan for next year,” said Assistant Superintendent Mike Matthews. “The more we know about next year’s future, the more we can protect next year’s jobs.”