Belt-tightening time

Local school districts discuss the hot topic of budget cuts

When it comes to talking budget cuts and education, local superintendents don’t paint a pretty picture, but they point to the strength of the teaching staff as being the backbone of their operations, something they say will remain unchanged.

Roger Bylund, who heads the Paradise Unified School District, uses the term “core program” when referring to teachers in the classroom. That’s what he, along with the school board, have concentrated on when faced with fiscal decisions, he said.

“At Paradise, the first things we cut were an assistant superintendent and a director position,” he said. While there have been some teacher layoffs, he offered, “Schools really are teachers in classrooms with students. There’s not going to be much change in that.”

Kelly Staley echoed that sentiment down the hill, where she is superintendent for Chico Unified School District.

“My goal is to ensure that even with diminishing support from the state for public education, CUSD continues to offer high-quality education for all of our students. We have highly qualified—and high quality!—teachers in our classrooms,” she writes in an e-mail, as she has been out of the office due to an injury over the summer.

While the financial outlook for local schools is a bit bleak, good news came this summer in the form of federal stimulus money, which equaled millions of dollars that are being used to offset some of the cuts that came from the state. For CUSD, it meant saving 40 jobs for this school year and will be split up over the next two years. Oroville Elementary did the same, and Paradise decided to spread its share over three years.

“There’s nothing that indicates that the revenue shortfalls are going to end anytime soon,” Bylund said. “We’ve taken it and spread it out as far as we can.”

The Oroville City Elementary School District, which opens its doors Aug. 24, a week after Paradise and two weeks after Chico, will use its stimulus money “for staffing costs, including a bilingual resource teacher, kindergarten instructional aides and bringing staff back from layoff,” said Ruthie Allen, assistant superintendent for business affairs. “Our goal is to maintain a quality educational environment for the students.”

The district also anticipates mid-year cuts again in January, so some of the stimulus funds will be set aside and used then as needed, Allen said.

The other good news is that the districts have been given more flexibility as far as where they can use their money—funds previously earmarked for textbooks, for example, can be used elsewhere. The state budget was approved so recently, however, that none of the local districts know yet which areas of flexibility they might take advantage of, with the exception of the one they knew about in advance: eliminating class-size reduction.

This has been a contentious issue, but all three districts have done away with the 20:1 student-teacher ratio in grades K-3. In Chico, that number has gone up to about 25:1; in Paradise it will be 25:1 in grades 2 and 3; and in Oroville, the schools are prepared to be 30:1 but won’t know for sure until all students are enrolled.

In Chico, some of the flexible funds may be used to hire part-time classroom aids for these teachers, said Jan Combes, assistant superintendent for business. At OCESD, administrators hope that the retention of some other programs, such as all-day kindergarten, band and an accelerated-academics class, will help offset the elimination of class-size reduction.

Bylund emphasized Paradise’s dedication to making the classroom experience good for students. “There will be fewer helpers around the edges,” he admitted. “In second and third grade, and in high school, the classes will be fuller [due to schedule-tightening]. And we won’t have counselors, or as many Title I people as we had before.”

“These are very difficult times for all Californians, and those employed in education are not immune from the impacts of California’s fiscal crisis, as evidenced just last week by the reductions made at the CSU level,” Staley summed up. “However, I am very confident that CUSD will weather this storm. Our teachers and staff are among the best to be found anywhere, and they will ensure quality education for our students.”