Painful cuts ahead for CUSD

Scott Huber is a Chico Unified School District trustee

For five straight years the Chico Unified School District has lost critical state funds due to an inexplicable decline in attendance at our elementary schools. For the last two years massive reductions in state funding due to California’s fiscal crisis have left CUSD scraping to save educational opportunities.

Despite this, last year the board vetoed eliminating elementary music and a teen-parent childcare nurse to save money. Earlier this year, the board rejected a money-saving plan to eliminate electives from our junior highs, a proposal that would have eliminated 17-20 teaching positions. The board’s goal throughout has been to keep cuts “away from students” as much as possible.

The saving of these programs has not come without a cost. Projections forecasting insufficient state funding for unknown years to come mean that next year it will be even harder to avoid cutting programs and teachers.

Against this background the board determined that its greatest tool for saving classes and instructors was the significant funds that could be regained by consolidating Chico’s currently underutilized elementary schools. With primary-school attendance down by more than 600 students, Chico is currently “over-schooled” by a school and a half. The funds recouped from consolidating schools (thereby modifying existing boundary lines) are equal to about $425,000 per school closed. With an initial forecast of a $1.2 million budget deficit for the 2005-06 school year, this could mean the savings of numerous programs and positions.

With that goal, trustees authorized a demographic survey of the district to develop a statistical snapshot of school usage and population trends. The board then debated, researched, nominated and approved an independent committee of nine respected citizens to develop a recommendation on school closures based in part on the information contained in the survey

The work of that committee will commence next month and will include numerous opportunities for public input at a series of open meetings. By year’s end the committee will present its recommendations to the school board. In early 2005 the district will hold meetings at potentially affected schools before the board takes final action in February.

There is nothing that the current Board of Trustees would appreciate more right now than an end to controversy and a return to improving educational opportunities in Chico. The unfortunate reality is that, until the state rallies from its budget abyss and Chico starts producing more elementary-school-age children, the battle to keep cuts "away from students" and away from programs and personnel will continue to rely on controversial and painful alternatives such as school closures.