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School Board Faces Tough Budget Decisions

By Teresa Rochester

April 18 -- More money from the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu and an increased parcel tax are the cornerstones of a proposed plan endorsed by Supt. John Deasy to help stave off the school district's anticipated $2.5 million budget shortfall for the upcoming school year.

The plan, which also calls for strategic budget cuts, is one of three options presented by Deasy in a memo sent to the board Wednesday. The two other options are either massive budget cuts across the board or a break from a new class size reduction policy that would have reduced district enrollment by 500 to 600 students.

"We're not begging for the money," Deasy told The Lookout. "This is the cost of maintaining or continuing to meet expectations… My office would present a formal request to (City Manager) Susan McCarthy."

If the cities refuse to increase financial support, Deasy cautions, the result will be the "whole-scale elimination of programs."

Deasy recommends asking Santa Monica and Malibu for minimum increases of $2 million dollars and $250,000 respectively. Currently, Santa Monica and Malibu annually contribute $3 million and $25,000 respectively out of budgets of approximately $367 million and $19 million.

"Maintaining your well crafted policies on improving teaching and learning, preparing to fund the strategic planning recommendations, sustaining current programming and beginning to enhance programs for students will require increased revenue," Deasy wrote in his memo.

"I propose for your consideration a combination of revenue growth, which could do all of the above and could also begin to eliminate the numerous fees we ask students/families to provide in order to support many activities (arts, sports, science, trips, etc.)," the memo said.

In the past, the school board has turned to the two cities and its residents to help balance its budget. But a steep economic downturn -- Santa Monica faces $8 million in budget cuts -- will make it difficult to secure additional funds.

Cash-strapped voters also will be asked to once again revisit a parcel tax they renewed and increased in November of 2000. At the current $98 per parcel, the tax produces funding in the "bottom quartile of all cities (that) enact such taxes in California."

Increasing the two streams of money would be coupled with efforts to reduce the budget by possibly eliminating substitutes for clerical and custodial positions or reducing supplies.

"We should also implement non-staff reductions, such as eliminating District budgets that support school expenditures for conference and travel, consultants and capital expenditures," the memo states.

"For longer-range expenditure reduction, we need to set targeted reductions for each support department so that staff can be reduced by attrition rather than layoff."

The other two options presented to the board include either massive budget cuts or boosting annual enrollment every year in a district whose schools are at or nearing capacity.

Sweeping budget cuts would need to cover more than next year's $2.5 million shortfall if the board is to have options of what to slash and in order to cover an even larger shortfall -- $2.7 to $2.8 million - expected during the 2003/2004 school year.

No one program would be completely eliminated through the budget cuts, but they would be severely impacted because of the magnitude of the cuts, Deasy said.

Cuts would begin with personnel, followed by money for conferences and travel, then programs and, finally, a reorganization of personnel, which would result in fewer people doing more work.

The second option -- one that previous superintendents relied on heavily in the past -- would swell student ranks by 500 to 600 students a year in order to profit from the attendant state money.

Adding students to the rolls would be an about-face for a district that plans to implement an ambitious class-size reduction plan that would set student to teacher ratios at 25 to 1, during a time when many California schools are abandoning the state's voluntary reduction in kindergarten through third grade.

Budget shortfalls anticipated for next school year and during the subsequent year came as no surprise to administrators, who have watched the state propose ever shrinking funds for public schools in the midst of its own struggles to balance the budget during dire economic times.

Last year's energy crisis prompted mid-year cuts by the state, which did not come close to solving fiscal problems compounded by a recession during the last three quarters and the economic fallout of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

The district's budget was developed based on the premises that the state would reduce cost of living funding and sever certain revenue streams. The district also saw its expenditures grow with the increase in cost for Worker's Compensation and heath benefits and the loss of earthquake assistance from the Federal government.

The budget also took into consideration that there would be a one percent salary increase for the 2002/2003 school year, that all student programs would be maintained (but not enhanced) and that class size would be reduced.

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