CUSD balance sheet takes a beating

State budget could cut deep into education

NUMBER CRUNCHER<br>Jan Combes has a real love-hate relationship with her calculator these days.

Jan Combes has a real love-hate relationship with her calculator these days.

Photo By matt siracusa

See for yourself
The PowerPoint presentation Jan Combes prepared for last week’s school board meeting is available online here.

Jan Combes describes her year and a half as assistant superintendent for business services for the Chico Unified School District as being similar to a rollercoaster ride—an underwater rollercoaster ride.

“We’re just trying to get our nose above water,” she said from her office, her desk piled high with reports and folders and all manner of other documents.

When she started her post, there was a “$3 million problem,” she said. A year ago, that was compounded into an $8.5 million problem and, thanks to cuts the district made last summer, by July that margin had slimmed to within $1.5 million—about 1 percent of the district’s yearly budget.

But now CUSD is looking at a possible $14.8 million deficit over the next 18 months. The recent financial news—most of it from Governor Schwarzenegger, and all of it subject to change—has sent Combes and the rest of the district into overdrive.

At last Wednesday’s school board meeting (Jan. 28), Combes shared the hard numbers, along with possible ways to get the school out of the red. Among them: layoffs for up to 60 teachers, cutting the school year by five days, bigger class sizes for K-3, and maintenance work.

Any way you look at it, eliminating more than $14 million in the next year and a half isn’t going to be pretty. Especially considering the district already made significant cuts—including laying off 30 employees—before the 2008-09 school year.

“We trimmed the fat a long time ago,” Combes said. “Last year we cut some meat. And now we’re down to the bone.”

The crux of the problem lies in Sacramento, with the governor’s proposed budget and a legislature that has yet to approve it. Among Schwarzenegger’s proposals is the elimination of a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA.

This year, CUSD had counted on getting the $5,799.62 per student it received for 2007-08, plus a COLA of $343 per student. (The COLA alone would account for $4.2 million district wide.) The proposed state budget calls for a return of $300 per student at the end of this year, plus an additional $138 cut for the following year.

“That puts us almost back to 2005-06,” financially speaking, Combes said.

Because the cuts to education are so drastic, Schwarzenegger has suggested some flexibility might be possible. For example, CUSD gets an additional $1,000 per student for K-3 when class sizes are kept small, at about 20 students. The state might be willing to let districts keep that money but increase class sizes.

That would mean about 60 primary teachers would be let go, and because the district likely won’t hear anything concrete from the state in the next month, notices of possible layoffs will go in the mail by March 15.

“We are once again in the midst of ‘planning for the worst while hoping for the best,'” Superintendent Kelly Staley wrote in her weekly in-house newsletter Friday. “Clearly we do not know what is going to happen with the state budget, nor do we know even when there will be a state budget. There are no positives in spending emotional energy on rumor and speculation. Let’s focus on lobbying our leaders in Sacramento, encouraging them to remember our students, the future of this state.”

While more than 90 percent of the district’s expenses are employee-related, Combes is working hard to come up with options that minimize the impact on personnel. There is no doubt, though, she said, that the biggest cuts will have to be to employees. Until the state finalizes its budget, though, these cuts are all just speculative.

“It’s been frustrating for all of us at the district office,” Combes said. “But our frustration is just an iota of that of a classroom teacher or parent—so I can’t really complain.”