Bad budget gets worse

Increasingly critical of state lawmakers, the Chico Unified School District trustees on Sept. 17 contemplated a bleak budget that provides less money to educate children.

“I hope the public bears with us and understands the difficult process we’re involved in,” said Trustee Steve O’Bryan, before the board signed off on the 2003-04 revised budget.

Randy Meeker, the CUSD’s assistant superintendent for business services, took the board through the Legislature-imposed twists and turns that resulted in money being cut from specific programs. Then, 12.1 percent was added back to those same, stripped programs because the CUSD had patterned its draft budget after the governor’s January proposal of across-the-board cuts.

The $90 million budget for 2003-04 includes $2.3 million in cuts and another $2.3 million in deficit spending. Money the CUSD hoped it could use to soften the blow of anticipated 2004-05 cuts has been swallowed up by cuts even greater than the conservative CUSD money-watchers had expected.

By the time the governor and Legislature got done with the 2003-04 budget, the money per child for students in the CUSD had dropped by $180.

One of the starkest drops is in money allocated for instructional materials. The $700,000 originally proposed for the CUSD has dropped over the course of the budget debate to only $378,000. Statewide, only 68 cents per student will be devoted to library materials, and in the CUSD that amounts to a $48,000, or 80 percent, drop from when the budget was drafted in February. The reading specialist funded with Miller Unruh money was eliminated completely. Also gutted by at least 30 percent was peer assistance and review as well as the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program.

One thing the CUSD is assuming is that next year, as in 2003-04, the state will not pass along a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). “We’re projecting zero COLA,” Meeker said. That’s money that has been traditionally used to offer 2- or 3-percent raises to teachers and other staff members. Nearly 87 percent of the CUSD’s budget is devoted to labor and benefits. Next year, steps and columns raises alone will cost the district $1.1 million, before any union negotiating is even attempted.

Meeker also related a multi-year projection, which is based largely on how much the CUSD expects enrollment to drop. This year, he said, “we projected a 75-ADA [average daily attendance] decline, and it looks like it could be as much as a 174-ADA decline.” Each student brings the district $6,887 from the state, so a loss of 174 students translates to $711,799 less for the CUSD.

Superintendent Scott Brown said the conservative approach should drive spending decisions, especially when it’s unclear if and how much money will be taken away from districts’ promised budget allocations in the future. (The CUSD has suffered through two unprecedented mid-year cuts in a row.)

"The spring of ‘04 will come with some very difficult decisions being placed in front of this board," he said. "Every dollar we save now is two less dollars we’ve got to cut for next year."