Eighty-five percent of budget goes to employee wages and benefits
By Daryl Kelley
For a decade, some Ojai teachers have received pink slips in mid-March, notifying them that their services might not be needed in the fall because of declining enrollment. Usually, most of those notices were rescinded.
But this time, the Ojai Unified School District may have no way to keep dozens of threatened teachers in their classrooms, because state and federal cuts, and fewer students, have left it with a nearly $3-million deficit next fall, a huge drop from this year’s budget of nearly $25 million.
Distraught district trustees voted Tuesday evening to notify 51 part- and full-time educators, including several managers, that they may have no jobs after June. Pink slips went out on Wednesday and Thursday.
That’s fewer than the 76 termination notices sent last year, when few teachers were actually laid off. But this year, officials said, there is little wiggle room in the state budget, and no new federal stimulus money such as the $1.3 million that rolled in this year.
The district could balance its budget by laying off 27 full-time educators, including three managers, but 51 were notified to give the district more flexibility in where and how it makes cuts. State law prevents a teacher from being dismissed unless notice is given by March 15.
This year’s “pink slip list” is especially grim, superintendent Hank Bangser told trustees. And it could reach “a significant distance down the seniority list” of teachers in the district.
Because 85 percent of the district’s budget goes to employee wages and benefits, that’s where trustees must look to cut, Bangser said.
Trustees will also consider soon proportionate reductions in the size of the district’s non-teaching staff, such as aides, secretaries, custodians and bus drivers. Fifteen full-time non-teaching positions need to be eliminated to balance the budget.
“Nobody is feeling there is going to be any relief,” Bangser said. “This is the end” of dodging the budget bullet, he said.
“This is a structural deficit, which means it doesn’t go away.”
That means that Ojai’s public schools will have fewer teachers, fewer class options and more students per class, officials said. There might also be fewer days of school. But just ow that shakes down is still up in the air.
Trustees must make those difficult choices during the next three months, giving final notice to teachers by mid-May and approving a budget by June 30.
“We’re really at this sort of precipice that we’ve never been at before,” Trustee Pauline Mercado said.
Even programs that are popular with parents and teachers are on the chopping block this time.
Size reduction of primary grade classes — kindergarten through third — are at risk. Those reductions to the current 20 students per class could be replaced with classes of 30, saving the district $400,000 as about 10 jobs are eliminated, Bangser told trustees.
“This is not a recommendation,” he said, “but it might be a place we have to go.”
Other options include a compromise, keeping primary classes at about 25 students, which would still save more than $200,000 annually.
John LeSuer, principal at Topa Topa Elementary, asked the board to do everything it can to keep class sizes down.
“At Topa Topa, our low economic sub-groups have doubled,” he said. “It’s really important that we try to keep these class sizes down.”
Advanced placement classes at Nordhoff High School are also in jeopardy, principal Dan Musick told the board. He has already decided to cut Spanish 5 and AP World History from the curriculum next fall, because the budget simply cannot support them any more, Musick said.
“This is the first year that we’ve said we are not going to have these classes next year,” he said. “We’re still going to have Spanish 4, a college-level class. And we still have three AP offerings in history — U.S., European and government.”
A shortened school year is also a distinct possibility.
Last year, teaching days were cut by five to 175. And the president of the Ojai Federation of Teachers, Martha Ditchfield, said that might be an option teachers prefer instead of layoffs. The district saves $100,000 for each of these so-called furlough days.
The teachers’ union distributed a survey this week, asking instructors to list their preferred cuts. The survey should be back by Monday, Ditchfield said.
“We’re asking: ‘What’s most important for you to keep?’” she said. “’What are you willing to give up?’”
If the district follows its 51 educator notices by laying off the equivalent of 27 full-time teachers and managers, and then another 15 non-teaching staffers, that would cut $2.8 million from the 2010-2011 budget, district analysts said.
It would also cut 41 people from the district’s full-time work force of 281: That’s nearly 15 percent of workers.
Under the new budget plan, the district would also reduce its emergency reserves from $742,000 to $217,000, just 1 percent of the total budget. State law requires a 3 percent reserve, but a waiver can be granted in dire economic times such as these.
Board President Kathi Smith asked Bangser to do all he can to survey parents as well as teachers.
And trustees agreed that the district should place a survey form on each school’s web site to gather parents opinions.
She mentioned that district voters had defeated an $89 per parcel tax that could have helped balance this year’s budget by yielding $600,000. Sixty-five percent of voters approved the tax, but it failed by 77 votes.
“Our taxpayers are asking us to diminish the education in this district,” Smith said. “It’s going to get worse.”
Other trustees also expressed dismay.
“I don’t understand the world, almost,” Trustee Rikki Horne said. “Yet, with all that, we’ll continue to educate our kids.”
Linda Taylor, a board member and former teacher, said she can hardly sleep with the responsibility: “All the gains of the last 15 years are really being wiped out, just flushed down the toilet.”
Trustee Steve Fields noted that the district has been shrinking for a decade as Ojai has grown older more rapidly than the rest of the county or state. The 3,000-student district is down about 50 more students this year, but seems to be stabilizing.
“We’ve been cutting, cutting and cutting,” Fields said. “In spite of that we’ve been able to keep what makes the district great.
“But it’s a slow bleed,” he added. “And it’s wrenching.”