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Publication Date: Friday, January 24, 2003

District wrestles with 'drastic' funding shortfall District wrestles with 'drastic' funding shortfall (January 24, 2003)

State deficit hits Pleasanton schools

by Jeb Bing

Already nearly seven months into the school year, the Pleasanton school board Tuesday took the first steps toward covering an estimated $2.2 million shortfall in its current budget year and considered ways to handle a $3 million shortfall looming next year.

The shortfalls, which Superintendent John Casey called "drastic," result from state funding cutbacks for education as Gov. Davis and the Legislature deal with a $34.6 billion state budget deficit.

And there could be more financial problems ahead.

"This is an unprecedented level of budget deficit for the state," Casey said. "This thing could be going on for two or three more years after the current fiscal year."

In a special 2-1/2 hour workshop to discuss potential budget adjustments, the board heard proposals by Assistant Superintendent Sandra Lemmons and others that would cover the shortfalls, but possibly at a cost to programs, services and school district staff. Although no votes or actions were taken, there appeared to be consensus among board members to accept Lemmon's plan to tap into a reserve fund for $1 million to meet shortfalls in both the current budget year and again in 2003-04.

There was also agreement to consider using $600,000 set aside to pay for the planned Neal Elementary School startup, at least for the current year. School Board President Kris Weaver said she would object to using this budget set-aside next year, which could be needed if Neal is built and opened before 2005. The $10 million school, which is planned for property the school district owns in the Vineyard Corridor, would serve elementary age children from nearby Ruby Hill and other eastside neighborhoods.

Although the "L" word - for layoffs - wasn't used as part of Lemmon's initial adjustments, cutbacks in the school district's management, clerical and teaching staff have been the talk on school campuses for weeks. As part of the collective bargaining process, teachers must receive notification by March 15 if their jobs could be on the line for the next school year.

"To make these adjustments without paying attention to the March 15 deadline would be unrealistic," Casey said.

Pleasanton may be in better shape to meet one or two years of state cutbacks than other districts because the school district here has maintained a reserve fund of about 6 percent of its near-$100-million budget. The state mandates a 3 percent reserve for school districts.

"But these reserves are like your own savings account," she explained. "You can keep drawing it down, but if you can't replenish it, eventually it's gone."

Unlike other districts, including some that don't have even the 3 percent in their reserves, Pleasanton is fortunate to have kept its reserve level high at about 5.7 percent, Lemmons said.

Besides using Neal startup funds and tapping into the reserve, Lemmons said the district could realize $279,000 from a mandated school improvement fund that the state may allow districts to use, and another $150,000 in reductions in staff development hours.

Casey said that more than 100 e-mails, phone calls and letters from school district staff, teachers and the community have been submitted as suggestions for coping with budget shortfalls this year and next. They included proposals to stop approving new courses to save on textbooks and materials, reducing the number of counselors in the elementary and middle schools, a custodian hiring freeze and to review the need for reading specialists at elementary schools.

Lemmons said that the state's allocation of $300,000 for class size reductions also has been cut, but board members indicated they would vote to continue the program. Lemmons said that the state could help districts continue these programs by allowing more flexibility so that schools could exceed the 20.4 absolute limit set by the state on a temporary basis. The state now strips schools of state funding for any school that exceeds that limit, even for a day.

Arick Little, a mathematics teacher at Amador Valley High School, urged the board to keep Class Size Reduction (CSR) programs in the ninth grades.

"As a teacher of 13 years, the CSR program helps students overcome obstacles they are facing in math," he said. "Don't pull this program out from under the kids. They need it."

Other teachers, including Amador Valley's Vivian Straight and Kelly Ching, joined Little in urging that the board continue funding CSR programs.

"The high number of kids who are passing the high school exit exams in Pleasanton can be attributed to the emphasis we are giving these kids in smaller writing classes," said Ching, a teacher of freshman English. "We are seeing the difference that these 20-1 class sizes have on just the first essay that they write."

Alisal Elementary School reading specialist Candace Cease and PE specialist Laurence Cohn of Fairlands Elementary told the board that specialists are needed at the elementary levels.

"We read every day about our young people who are overweight and in dire risk to their health," Cohn said. "We're seeing juvenile diabetes at younger ages and other problems due to obesity. Pleasanton is five times above the current state level set for PE standards. We want to continue that."

Board members also asked staff help in looking at possible revenue generators that could help reduce program costs and add money for more. Suggestions included charging fees for staff development courses, which are now paid by the district, charging for summer school and raising fees for school lunches.

Board President Weaver said the district should also consider a parcel tax for Pleasanton.

"Many people I have talked to who have moved to Pleasanton from other districts have suggested that we should consider a parcel tax," she said. "We should consider it in time for a vote on the issue in November if it would make a difference."

Casey said he will have firm recommendations on covering the 2002-03 budget shortfall ready for the board's consideration and approval at its meeting this Tuesday at 7 p.m. At its Feb. 11 meeting, he will make similar recommendations for handling the anticipated budget shortfall for the 2003-04 school year.

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