| Publication Date: Friday, May 02,
Behind the numbers
District minimizes cuts, but pain still felt by
counselors and non-teaching employees
On paper, the 58 line-item budget cuts under consideration by
the school district are a jumble of acronyms and dollar signs.
But behind those seemingly faceless figures are people, the course
of whose lives will be affected by the $3.5 million in budget cuts
facing the Palo Alto Unified School District board.
"You need to remember that each dollar sign has a face and a
family," Chuck McDonnell, the president of the union representing
non-teaching employees, told the school board at a recent meeting.
On Tuesday night, the Palo Alto Unified School Board discussed
slicing 3.2 percent of its $108 million budget by cutting back
everything from counseling services to maintenance staff to cell
"We have tried to come up with a list of reductions totaling almost
$3.6 million," Superintendent Mary Frances Callan said. "We looked
at all programs."
cuts are a reaction to an unprecedented state budget crisis,
mean the elimination of the district's $120 per student "basic
aid" and reductions in funding for programs. Coupled with rising
enrollment and sliding revenue from investments and property taxes,
the district -- like many in the state -- is caught in one of the
biggest fiscal fiascos to affect education.
But unlike most other districts, Palo Alto has avoided issuing
pink slips to teachers or eliminating class-size reduction, a program
that keeps teacher-student ratios at 20 to 1.
Still, there are slashes in services that nip at the district's
core, like redistributing teachers on special assignments, eliminating
several non-teacher positions, curtailing athletics funding, increasing
counselor to student ratios and reducing funding for programs like
AVID and GATE.
"I don't want us to become average and that's where we are heading
with these cuts," said teacher Susan Antink.
The cuts will be felt by teachers and counselors who will have
fewer resources and less time to spend with students, parents who
will be asked to help with funding and administrators who will
have to keep an eye on the bottom line.
"Certainly I don't think students will feel a direct impact at
all," said Paly Principal Sandra Pearson. "We are just going to
have much slimmer budgets for supplies and textbooks."
Perhaps the most troubling cut is a slash in the student-to-counselor
ratios, from 360-to-1 to 400-to-1. These counselors often provide
advice and assistance to the district's most troubled youth. Having
to juggle more students equates to less time per pupil.
"It means each of our teacher advisors will have to pick up a
greater load. They seem very willing to do that," Pearson said.
But "at some point we lose the personal service."
To save money on counselors, the district will reduce their hours
and shuffle employees to fill vacant, unfilled positions.
"We'll have to be creative with our guidance program," said
JLS Middle School Principal Joseph Di Salvo. In anticipation
cuts, the school has launched a mentoring program in which 50 students
have been paired with a school employee for weekly meetings.
For the counselors, the situation is depressing.
"I'm worried about what support won't be there for our students," said
Patti Livingston, a sixth-grade counselor at Jordan Middle School.
Livingston, who is on her fifth year at Jordan and 13th in the
district, will most likely split her time between two schools because
of the cuts.
"It is a great group of teachers here at Jordan and I would be
really sad to leave them. But you do what you got to do," she said.
While the district has been careful not to hand out lay-off notices,
there will be jobs lost. A total of 11.42 certificated full-time
employee positions will be eliminated and 10.61 classified full-time
employees will be lost by reducing hours, cutting vacant positions
and returning teachers on special assignment to the classroom.
This translates into fewer clerks, secretaries and support staff
for teachers and district personnel. The district also hopes to
save money by reducing overtime and the use of substitutes.
"We may have to take a little longer to get something done," Callan
In addition to stretching staff, schools will have to extend dollars.
The athletics budget is proposed to take a 50 percent reduction
at both the middle and high schools. Funding per student at elementary
schools will fall $128 per student to $100 per student; at middle
schools from $84 to $80 and at high schools from $101 to $95.
"What it will mean is more of the burden of fund raising to meet
some of our needs will be placed on our parents," Pearson said.
For instance, Paly will raise the fee it charges students to participate
in school sports, Pearson said.
Parents are already thinking of how they can pitch in, said PTA
member Elaine Hahn.
"As a parent I am thinking: What can we do to support the district
efforts? If there is something being cutback, can we rally the
parent community to help out in some way?" said Hahn, who views
the itemized cut list as a barometer for fund raising.
The district hopes the $3.5 million in cuts will be enough, but
realizes the figure could rise based on when the state approves
its long overdue budget. It also could go up if property tax revenue
dips -- something administrators will know after a meeting with
the county controller in May.
Next year, there could be more bad news if the economy continues
to slide and the state budget deficit grows.
"The next round of cuts becomes far more painful," said school
board member John Barton. "More people will lose their jobs. There
is a grayer cloud on the horizon."
Hanging over the district's head is a proposal by Gov. Gray Davis
to grab $23.1 million of the district's budget to fill a void in
the state's growing deficit. The proposal hits all 60 of the state's
basic-aid districts. Recently the Assembly joined the Senate in
rejecting the proposal, but the district fears the plan could resurface
at some point.
"If the worst-case scenario comes down from the governor, it is
seven times what we face tonight," School board member Gail Price
said at the Tuesday meeting. "We hold our breath to the May revise."
In the meantime, the board hopes to approve the cuts and balance
its budget by June.
The process has been much smoother than eight years ago, when
the district had to trim a little more than a million from its
"This is so, so much better. The last time the board was given
a list and then told to pick. That was such a disaster," said Cathy
Kroymann. "I feel I have been handed a gift," she said of the 58-item
That's not to say the cuts are any less painful, Callan noted.
"None of these cuts we wish to make. If something is on this list
it doesn't mean it's not valued," Callan said.
Ultimately, the cuts are inconvenient, but not a tragedy. Most
school officials said they are pleased with how the district has
trimmed the budget.
"Will it affect our work? Yes, but in minor, minor ways," Di
Weekly intern Grace Rauh contributed to this report.
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