Sacramento City Unified School District proposes gutting schools

Sac city schools chief says this year’s budget is worst yet

Say goodbye to school sports, music classes and school-bus transportation, and hello to more crowded classrooms.

At least that’s the scenario facing Sacramento City Unified School District schools. Last week, the school board approved a brutal list of cuts totaling $28 million.

Teachers say the list is at least partly political, an attempt to scare the public and pressure employees to make bigger concessions. They argue that the district still has fat to trim in consultant contracts and other areas. But district officials say the cuts may in fact turn out to be much worse if California voters reject tax measures proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“The upcoming budget year probably will be the worst one we’ve experienced,” said schools Superintendent Jonathan Raymond last week at a public budget workshop held at C.K. McClatchy High School.

The shortfall occurs mostly because state funding for the next budget year is going to be flat under the governor’s budget proposed earlier this year. Federal stimulus money helped the district muddle through the last couple of years, but that money is all gone now. And the district continues to face falling enrollment, losing students—and the state funding that follows them—to nearby suburban districts.

Sadly, a $28 million deficit may actually be the rosier of two scenarios. If California voters don’t approve Brown’s measure raising sales taxes and other revenue, that will prompt a new round of “trigger cuts” for schools. Then it’s another $15 million lost to SCUSD.

The district can’t finalize its budget until the state budget is final. But it must have its preliminary budget approved by March 15. That’s also the deadline for the district to issue pink slips to any teachers who might be laid off.

The district says these cuts will go forward unless the state-budget picture improves, or the teachers union and other employee groups agree to concessions. So far, the district hasn’t made any demands for concessions, and there’s no guarantee it could come to an agreement. So, for now, it’s all cuts.

The biggest savings, about $4.8 million, would come from increasing class sizes significantly. That means 32 kids in a kindergarten class, up from 25 now, and also bumping up class size in grades first through third.

Increasing class sizes of course also means laying off a lot of teachers. The dance of the pink slips has become something of a cruel ritual in Sac city schools, with the district issuing hundreds of lay-off notices in the spring, then reeling them back as the budget picture becomes clearer in the summer.

Last year, the district brought back 360 of the 400 teachers and counselors who were issued pink slips. District spokesman Gabe Ross says it’s not because the district issued too many pink slips initially, but instead because it prepared for the worst, then saw the state-budget picture improve.

Here are some of the other proposed cuts:

• The district’s plan eliminates stipends for sports coaches, yearbook advisers and band teachers, likely ending those programs at many schools. This would save the district about $1.27 million. Music teachers would be eliminated, too, saving another half-million dollars.

• The budget eliminates school counselors at and middle and high schools, to save $1.68 million.

• Most of the district’s adult-education programs would be cut, saving about $2.9 million.

• The new budget eliminates school-bus transportation for most kids who currently receive it, saving about $1 million.

• The plan would cut the number of assistant principals at middle and high schools.

• The cuts would eliminate school librarians in middle and high schools. Librarians in lower grades have already been cut.

Photo By

“They chose the cuts that would seem most onerous to parents,” said Scott Smith, president of the Sacramento City Teachers Association.

Smith thinks there are less painful cuts to be made. “There’s a lot they could have done, if they’d come talk to us.”

One place the union and several members of the school board think the district should look for savings is in the millions it spends on contracts for education consultants and other outside professional services.

This covers everything from campus security to software for evaluating teachers and tracking test scores. The district says it will reduce outside contracts for consultants and other services enough to save about $1 million. But teachers say that’s not good enough.

“I know you can squeeze more than $1 million out of these contracts,” said teacher Carlos Rico, during the public meeting. “If you need help, I’ll sit down and look at them with you,” he told Raymond. The superintendent didn’t respond to the offer.

Some SCUSD board members, too, have pressed for more information and more oversight over the large and lucrative block of consultant contracts.

SN&R has highlighted some of these contracts in the past. One, a $1.6 million deal with Energy Education, a Dallas consultant who was supposed to show the district how to save energy, didn’t save the district as much money as they thought it would.

A $500,000 contract for computer software and training with a New York-based company called Wireless Generation raised eyebrows when it turned out the company is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The state of New York canceled a contract with that company in light of the phone-hacking revelations involving News Corp. last year.

And teachers are generally concerned about the cost-effectiveness of paying so many outside consultants to come in and train teachers. “Let’s just be honest: 90 percent of it is a complete waste of time,” said teacher Scott Chase.

The district spent about $39 million on consultants in the 2011-12 year and $42 million the year before. But Ross says that most of the contracts, 77 percent, come from “restricted” pots of money that don’t affect the general fund.

“The notion that there’s millions and millions of dollars we can save in contracts just isn’t accurate,” said Ross.

But despite the district’s budget woes and deep cuts to other categories, “The account for consulting services continues to grow,” says SCUSD board member Gustavo Arroyo.

Arroyo and SCUSD board president Diana Rodriguez managed to win support on the board for an ad hoc committee to hold hearings and study consultant contracts.

“Maybe it’s a half million, maybe it’s $2 million. Everything should be on the table,” said Arroyo.

If there’s one thing that the district and teachers agree on, schools need more stable funding.

The district has done some polling on potential voter support for a parcel tax or bond measures in November. But Raymond was tight-lipped about any plans. “I hear the encouragement—almost screaming, really—about raising revenue. I want to assure folks that we’re being very deliberate about it.”

At the McClatchy High event, teachers and parents also questioned why the district chose not to close any of several under-enrolled schools in the district. The district hired a consultant and formed a task force to recommend school closures and consolidation. That set of proposals also included some politically controversial changes to the Sacramento Charter High School and West Campus high schools.

The board ultimately backed off any changes in the face of parent anger. School closures by themselves wouldn’t save a lot of money, just $180,000 to $450,000 according to the district’s estimates.

Raymond said closures remain on the table. “But what if it’s your school? How do you feel about closing your school?” Raymond asked the parents at McClatchy.

But parent Brian Grattridge said the district should revisit the school closure—if it could help stave off the loss of programs. “I’d rather have four slightly damaged schools than five completely gutted schools.”