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Palo Alto Weekly Online Edition
Publication Date: Friday, May 02, 2003

Behind the numbers
District minimizes cuts, but pain still felt by counselors and non-teaching employees

by Jennifer Aquino

On paper, the 58 line-item budget cuts under consideration by the school district are a jumble of acronyms and dollar signs.

Behind the numbers

Budget cuts take a
back-seat to school work

Budget crisis forces
new thoughts on school funding

List of budget cuts

Streetwise

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 phone use.

"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."

The cuts are a reaction to an unprecedented state budget crisis, which will 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 of the 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 said.

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 coffers.

"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 list.

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 Salvo said.

Weekly intern Grace Rauh contributed to this report.
Jennifer Aquino can be e-mailed at jaquino@paweekly.com

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Editor's note:
This is part of the final installment in a four-part series on how the school budget crisis is affecting various segments of the community.
As the biggest fiscal fiasco to hit education rocks schools across the state, the Palo Alto Unified School District and the surrounding community battle a state property-tax grab and formulate massive reductions to the district's 2003-2004 budget.
At a study session April 29, the district will reveal its plans to reduce the budget by more than $4 million for the 2003-2004 to address anticipated state cuts and a shortfall in revenue.
In the meantime, it is fighting to hold onto more than $23.1 million in property tax funding that Gov. Gray Davis threatens to take away.

First installment
Second installment
Third installment

 

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