CUSD OKs dizzying budget

Parents, teachers and nurses showed up to the June 19 school board meeting to fight for a place in the 2002-03 budget, and many of them left looking a little dazed by the whole process.

The Forest Ranch Elementary School contingent was geared up to convince the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees that it needs four teachers next year, not three as had been proposed. But when the first speaker rose to say her piece, board President Ann Sisco interjected: “We will be maintaining four teachers at Forest Ranch.” A little taken aback, the attendees applauded the behind-the-scenes decision.

Another budget area didn’t fare as well. Nurse Ann Scott, in response to trustees’ earlier requests, researched the nurse-to-student ratio in districts across California. With only three nurses, she said, the team will barely be able to meet state mandates, let alone identify students with special health concerns or deal with perhaps-deadly situations such as children with diabetic shock or asthma attacks. She was cut off at five minutes and skipped ahead to the closing of her prepared statement: “Is anybody really listening?”

After one brief comment from a trustee, the nurse position was cut, saving $65,777, as was that of one librarian. Besides cutting back on teachers, the board approved the elimination of two principal positions, assistant principals, an administrative job and two clerical positions in the District Office. Furthermore, each school site will have to trim its budget by 5 percent.

The week after the meeting, nurse Scott reflected that she’s most worried that this will set a precedent: Someone retires and the position is gone forever. More immediately, Scott sees apparent ironies in what district administration refers to in a memo as the “reconfigured” nurse priorities. The nurses are to take care of the mandates, but then “likely to be reduced and/or eliminated” are activities such as referrals to outside agencies. What’s the good, Scott wonders, of testing kids’ vision, hearing and such, if the nurses can’t then get them help?

The 2002-03 budget of $91.8 million, which was unanimously approved by the board, includes $1.1 million in deficit spending, something new for the CUSD.

Randy Meeker, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, said in an interview that the CUSD, which in the past has been accused of pleading poverty only to come up with more money later in the game, is trying a new philosophy. "The concept is that we try to budget conservatively, but not to the extent that it’s so conservative that we overcut," he said.