What’s gonna change in my classroom?

School-district honchos dish out the dirt on how the budget will affect students

SAME OLD, SAME OLD<br>Pleasant Valley High students and their parents can rest easy knowing there will be minimal changes due to budget cuts this year.

Pleasant Valley High students and their parents can rest easy knowing there will be minimal changes due to budget cuts this year.

Photo By Josh Graham

Mirroring the state’s budgetary woes, schools across California find themselves light on cash yet heavy on mandates. The situation is particularly acute in the Chico Unified School District, which went on a form of financial probation (on top of performance probation) even before the current crisis.

Earlier in the year, when all agencies that receive state funding recast their budgets, CUSD faced an $8.5 million deficit for 2008-09. Through a series of cutbacks—including the controversial closure of Cohasset and Forest Ranch elementary schools—the district has closed the gap to within $1 million and is fairly confident it won’t get worse, based on indications from Sacramento shared by Sheila Vickers, CUSD’s financial adviser from the Butte County Office of Education.

That’s a broad overview, but how are things going to look from the students’ perspective? Still unclear on what the state budget would hold, Superintendent Kelly Staley and Assistant Superintendent Bob Feaster sat down with the CN&R to explain what will be different—and what won’t—on Chico campuses this school year.

How are you doing big-picture-wise on the budget?

Staley: We certainly are improving. The cuts that we made have been helping. The frustrating thing about not having a state budget is we don’t really know exactly how things are going to fall.

One of the things that’s huge for Chico Unified is that we’re in corrective action, and there’s about a million dollars the state has from the feds to help kids that are not proficient, and the state was supposed to allocate those out to the school sites. The state hasn’t done that, and if they don’t get that done soon, it all goes back—millions and millions of dollars.

So there are so many unknowns that, while we know we have to do better because of the cuts that we made, we don’t know where we are in the whole scheme of things.

Feaster: We started talking about an 8 1/2-million-dollar deficit in January. With Kelly’s recommendations approved by the board, and with freezes and other savings we can do through the year, based on the May revise [of the state budget], we think we may be down to a million and a half, which still isn’t there but is much better than where we were. And we may have some categorical funds [for specific programs] that will let us get [the deficit] down more.

Are you worried that the state budget could turn that $1.5 million deficit back into $8.5 million?

Staley: It’s not likely, but nobody can guarantee that. What we’ve found out from Sheila Vickers is that a lot of the dollars on the categorical side—like those for English-language learners—will be there, so you can count on those. Everything else, she says, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Say I’m a student at Rosedale Elementary, a student at Marsh Junior High and a student at Pleasant Valley. How is my school year going to be different?

Staley: Let’s start at PV, because that’s probably the easier one. For the average student, there probably won’t be much difference. Our staffing ratio has always been at the high school 35:1, so it’s not uncommon for kids to go into a class and have 30 to 35 kids in their class—that’s the norm.

There are some extracurriculars that were cut—cheerleading was cut, the literary magazine was cut; things where we just couldn’t afford the stipend for teachers. We kept all the sports, but we’re relying on coaches and parents to do fund-raising to have those sports. So if you’re a student that’s in athletics, you may or may not see a difference. But the general classroom, not that different.

Feaster: One thing students may see a little different is fewer sections of electives offered. Fewer sections of Spanish to choose from, so maybe the class is a little larger. Fewer sections of music, just because the enrollment is driving our staffing.

Staley: It’s important to know we didn’t lose the elective program. They may not be with 15 kids in a class—30 to 35 is our goal—but we did not lose the breadth of our electives. I was fearful there’d be programs that would just go away because we couldn’t afford them anymore…. So I really don’t think there’s going to be much of a difference for the average kid.

It’s a little different at the junior high. One thing they won’t have right off the bat is the rotating schedule. Because we only have enough [students in a subject area] for three periods at the high school and we only need two periods at the junior high, the teacher will go between those two school sites … so we need to have a common schedule.

At the junior highs, the activities director position was eliminated, and that was a really key position. What we’re hoping to negotiate with the union is they’d have one period with the student government kids and one release period to get things done for activities. Fingers crossed on that.

What’s going to be different from the perspective of the kids?

Staley: Things that they do at lunchtime—the balloon race, the three-legged races, rallies, dances, those things traditionally set up by kids—won’t have a class to set them up, so those would have to be done by the principal or a vice principal or the PTA.

Feaster: And we won’t have that cadre of student leaders coming into the high schools, and that’s sad.

Staley: But the kids at the junior highs still will have one period a day for electives, so we didn’t change that, and the class sizes won’t change too much.

Elementary is going to vary based on the school. If you’re a student at Shasta, Marigold, Sierra View, things aren’t going to be much different because your classes have always been large, in the 30-33 range.

Where the difference is going to be is at our schools that aren’t as popular in terms of enrollment. At a school like Rosedale, because we had to reduce the number of teachers, if more kids show up you might see some more combination classes. If we don’t have enough first-graders, we might have to put some second-graders in there to get to that 30-33 number.

Feaster: Our mantra is we’re waiting to see the butts in the seats and the whites of their eyes.

When there’s so much need to think in big numbers and groups, how challenging is it to think of students as individuals?

Feaster: A big part of that is our two-year history in PLC [Professional Learning Communities], and in all the things we’ve been doing, we’ve been trying to make sure we don’t interfere with that…. We hope to continue with our teacher-collaboration plans and to look at individual student data. So we’re still focused on individual learning.

Staley: The goal for this year is while we’re still doing the intervention for the kids who are struggling, we are also boosting up the kids who are succeeding and want to succeed even more.