Recurring exercise: subtraction

Making do with less money presents a growing challenge in local districts

When students in the Paradise Unified School District returned to campus this week, 28 fewer teachers were waiting to greet them. Fewer school buses will be rolling along roads in Durham this school year, and educators in Chico will attend fewer professional-development conferences.

With enrollment declining in schools all over the North State, funding for school districts is dwindling as well. Schools get money based on attendance figures. As those numbers drop, so do the dollar amounts. The result is budget-cutting, which has become a reality for almost every school district in the area.

“There’s no doubt it’s a major challenge,” said Steve Jennings, superintendent of the Paradise Unified School District. “The goal is to do the least impact on the quality of education for students.”

That’s easier said than done, of course. As budgets tighten, buying fewer markers and less poster board quickly turns into paying fewer teachers and staff members. Jennings’ district issued layoff notices this March in an effort to cut $1.5 million from the operating budget. In addition to laying off teachers, the Paradise district pared down its custodial staff and reduced hours for health aides, library technicians, bus drivers and a music aide.

In addition, the high school lost its snowboarding team, and only a contract loophole kept the district from outsourcing junior-high sports to the recreation district (see page 20 for more about this).

“In order to accommodate declining enrollment, we have to make cuts,” Jennings said. “They’re being made across the board.”

Making personnel cuts is something the Durham Unified School District avoided this year. The district halved the number of bus runs in the morning, plus it reduced the amount of classroom and office supplies it’s purchasing.

Still, interim Superintendent Rick Landees sympathizes with Jennings and his tough decisions. The challenge doesn’t just lie in protecting a student’s education, but also in supporting those people who educate the children.

“It’s traumatic,” Landees said. “You’re dealing with employees’ jobs and livelihood. When budget cuts start happening, the threat of Am I going to be here next year? is always over everyone’s head. It’s detrimental to staff morale and ultimately translates into affecting the students and how teachers operate in the classroom.”

Anne McLean is one teacher who says she has been affected by budget cuts. While she does not worry about losing her job, she does worry about the education she is providing to students in her second-grade class at Chico’s Neal Dow Elementary.

“I could teach right out of the science book,” McLean said. “But if I really want to enrich my students’ education, I need to do more. And that requires money.”

A LESSON IN MONEY<br />Anne McLean gets her second-grade classroom ready for the school year to begin. The Neal Dow Elementary teacher has paid out of pocket for much of the materials she hangs on the wall, as well as this easel.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

More and more, she finds herself spending money out of her pocket to support educational programs. McLean says that, while teachers are provided with basic curricular needs for their students, no funding is available for anything above that.

McLean says on average she spends $500 on her students a year. She is quick to add, however, that the amount varies, based on a teacher’s personal choice.

“There are some teachers who will never spend anything, and there are others who will be extravagant,” she said. “It’s one of those things that is, Am I willing to do this for my students or not?

A mother as well as an educator, McLean said she enrolled her three now-grown sons in public education because of the opportunities available. Her oldest son was in private school for a period, but public school provided him with exposure to music programs and the like. Almost as soon as the words left her mouth, McLean came to a realization: “I guess that’s not the case now.”

Indeed, with budget cuts, students inherently find fewer enrichment programs. Yet Jennings said that budget cuts don’t always equal less; they sometimes translate into reworking certain programs.

For instance, Jennings said that instead of having music programs during the school day, Paradise would offer band after school to reduce the number of teaching hours. “We will still have opportunities,” Jennings said. “They will just look a little different.”

Kelly Staley, interim superintendent of the Chico Unified School District, has spent time in her first few months on the job assessing the deficit. She’s working for a district that needs to cut $1.12 million from a budget already pared down by $1.67 million before the school year started.

Staley said each school has taken a 20 percent hit, and she is scrutinizing all expenditures district-wide.

“You need to be creative in how you spend your money and how you fund things,” said Staley. “You take a careful look at things and ask tough questions. And you become very good at keeping cuts away from students.”

That is the reason she doesn’t plan to send teachers to seminars and conferences on the district’s dime.

A side-effect of a constantly fluctuating budget is the challenge of attracting top professionals. Chico is in the process of replacing Chet Francisco, superintendent for less than two years, and part of Landees’ job is to find a permanent replacement for himself in Durham. As Jennings observed, “there aren’t a lot of people who want to be working for a cause when you’re dealing with a deck that is stacked against you.”

Among those willing to do so are people like McLean.

“Ultimately,” she said, “I am a teacher and I am here for my kids. The budget is something I don’t think of on a daily basis. I just keep my focus on them.”