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By Tim Hunt

School trustees facing decisions based on educated guesses

Uploaded: Feb 2, 2012

Pleasanton school trustees and senior staff members are starting to wrestle with a most challenging budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
It amounts to educating guessing because so much is unknown and well beyond their control.
Decisions on teacher staffing next year must be made in the next four or five weeks so notices of potential layoffs can be sent in mid-March. Of course, the district will only have a set of "best guesses" upon which to base its plans. That's nothing new.

What is different is Gov. Jerry Brown's budget hinges on voters passing in November his five-year, one half-cent sales tax increase coupled with an income tax surcharge on the wealthiest Californians (sound familiar). He's tied passage to further cuts in education and public safety—note: he didn't choose prison guards.
If the initiative, which public employee unions are funding the signature-gathering, fails, then it would trigger automatic cuts similar to those built into the current year's budget that contained most rosy predictions for revenue.
For Pleasanton and other school districts, taking the conservative approach is planning for the worst and developing a budget that can withstand difficult mid-year cuts. Although the final state budget likely will be passed by the mid-June deadline, serious work on it will not start until after the governor submits his revised plan in May.
That's obviously, way too late for staffing decisions for school districts.
For now, the governor's plan is polling well—receiving support from 64 to 68 percent of voters in two polls. If that holds, then districts may be heaving a huge collective sigh of relief after the November election. If voters go the other way—then it will be significant cuts mid-year after teaching staffs (the largest expenditure) have been set in September.
For Pleasanton, various groups that like specific programs already have started to crank up their lobbying campaigns. This week a local website featured a piece about the Barton reading program, which was cut by 50 percent last year.
It's relatively a small expenditure—$106,000 after the cut—that serves 150 students with volunteer tutors. Many students are dyslexic and make significant progress through the program.
I will be the first to say that without the ability to read and comprehend—life will always be difficult at best. That said, the challenge for the district is the price of the program—north of $700 per student. That's a healthy chunk of change on a per student basis.
Can you put a price on helping one student with challenges overcome then versus programs that benefit more students? That's the type of decision trustees with which trustees will be wrestling.
And to think, school trustees are essentially volunteers—the pittance they receive in compensation in no way comes close to the responsibility and the amount of time required to do a difficult job well.