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Publication Date: Friday, February 21, 2003

Editorial Editorial (February 21, 2003)

Fiscal vision spares the ax for Pleasanton teachers, schools

With school budget deficits mounting across the state - $3.5 million in Palo Alto, alone - Pleasanton appears to have saved its teachers, classroom curriculum and school expansion programs from the butcher block at least through June 2004. That's a credit not only to Superintendent John Casey and Assistant Superintendent Sandra Lemmons and their staffs, but also to the five school board members who have worked extra-long hours at regular and special meetings and in workshop discussions with school staff to curb spending in non-essential areas. Energy costs will be significantly reduced by $276,000, which means schools may be a little warmer in the hot weather months and colder in the winter. Voluntary staff development costs are being cut by $150,000 and other reductions in allocations and operating expenses will save an additional $400,000. Key to closing budget shortfalls that amount to as much as $2 million this year and more in the next fiscal year was also the board's willingness to dip into a near-$6 million reserve fund and to tap the $600,000 annual set-aside that has been earmarked to operate a yet-unbuilt elementary school in the Vineyard corridor.

Pleasanton's budget crisis, like those facing California schools, state agencies and local governments, is the result of an estimated $35 billion state budget shortfall. Since more than half of the state budget is earmarked for education, it stands to reason that state leaders are looking at school funding to cut especially hard. In larger cities like San Diego, the state cuts could mean major layoffs and school closings. Across the Bay, where former Pleasanton School Superintendent Mary Frances Callan took the Palo Alto district superintendent's job just one year ago, that district could be among the hardest hit. After seven years of never-ending growth and where housing prices have been increasing in double-digit percentages year after year, the balloon has burst. Local revenue sources are drying up, along with state aid. Next door, the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District could lose almost $10 million of its $32 million budget because of state budget cutbacks. Closer to home, Livermore school officials are struggling with how to make $4 million in budget cuts, with pink slips likely for teachers starting on March 15. Even in Dublin, a fast growing residential and retail center, the school district is faced with a quarter-million-dollar budget shortfall in the current school year.

So why is Pleasanton in better financial shape? Say thanks to a succession of fiscally conservative school boards and a former school district financial guru, Retired Assistant Superintendent Buster McCurtain. McCurtain put any extra funds into a reserve lockbox and then held onto the key. Where other districts kept only the state-required minimum of 3 percent of total budget revenue on hand each year, McCurtain insisted on 6 percent. With the board's approval, he created a special Sycamore Site fund, hoping that this now-$8 million would grow like an endowment to cover the ongoing annual high costs of school computers and technology upgrades. These funds and others from financially savvy district teams that now include Casey and McCurtain's successor Sandra Lemmons mean Pleasanton can move forward while others who let revenue slip away during the short-lived New Economy days now pay the price.

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