Budget crunch

Chico schools giving out pink slips

Katy Gervasi may find herself without a classroom and students next year.

A sixth-grade teacher at Chapman Elementary, Gervasi hopes she’s not one of the estimated 220 Chico Unified School District employees receiving a pink slip next month.

“I know I’m not safe, but I’m trying not to spend a lot of time worrying about it,” Gervasi said.

Facing a severe budget crisis, the district announced Friday (Feb. 8) that its workforce will need to be pared down. With the governor’s proposed budget cuts looming over the district, the $3 million deficit already projected for the 2008-09 school year has catapulted into a projected $8.5 million shortfall.

That makes the $1.1 million shortfall of three years ago—which led to the closure of two schools—seem like just a blip.

“We have gone from a bad situation to a situation that is unprecedented,” said Kelly Staley, the CUSD’s interim superintendent. “We have to take drastic measures in order to handle this.”

With 91 percent of the district’s general-fund dollars allocated to salaries and benefits, the only way to balance the budget is to cut positions. And all employees—administrative, certificated and classified—will be susceptible.

Still, Gervasi said she’s had the district hand her a pink slip yet still found herself with a job the following school year.

“I’m really not that stressed,” said Gervasi, who’s been teaching in the district for five years. “This is something that has happened before.”

Don McNelis, Butte County’s superintendent of schools, acknowledges that the district is unlikely to lose more than 200 employees. But he cautioned that this time around “it is not just business as usual.”

“This is extremely real,” McNelis said. “There is no question there will be layoffs.”

And without a secure allocation from the state, the district must prepare for the worst possible situation: a devastating loss in funding under Gov. Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal.

McNelis said, under state law, staff must be notified by March 15 if they are in danger of losing their jobs. The state’s budget is not passed until months later, making it impossible to project the exact number of positions to be eliminated. In the unlikely case that the governor’s proposal is passed as is, or if it’s modified in a way that still includes reductions, the district needs to be prepared.

“If we don’t make these cuts now, we can’t make them next year because of the education code,” McNelis said.

So teachers, administrators and even janitorial staff will receive layoff notices beginning next month. And while there is no doubt that a number of employees will lose their jobs, district officials say the number won’t be as high as they are preparing for.

“This is not the final decision,” said Jan Combes, the CUSD’s assistant superintendent of business. “The chances of not having 220 positions next year are unreal.”

Staley said she expects the actual layoffs to be about one-third that number. “Without knowing our actual state budget or enrollment numbers, we have to cast a wide net,” she said. “There won’t be near as many jobs lost as we are projecting.”

Even so, the impact on class sizes will be considerable.

District officials recognize the need for open communication with the public. With that in mind, the CUSD Board of Trustees has upped its meeting schedule from once to four times a month.

All meetings are held on Wednesday evenings and are open to the public.