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Schools brace for fresh budget cuts

Submitted by on 1, February 12, 2009 – 9:09 amNo Comment

Alameda Unified is off to the start of another promising year – another year that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is promising to cut state school funding, that is. Since the state supplies almost 80 percent of the school district’s money, that’s all kinds of not good. About $4.3 million of not good over the next year and a half, to be exact. And the district is anticipating another $2.7 million hit in increased expenses and losses associated with declining enrollment and loss of students to the newNea charter school.

The school board and district staff held the first of two community workshops Wednesday night to ask residents how they would like the board to solve the problem this year. The solutions short list includes using Measure H parcel tax funds currently in reserve; using funds targeted for school safety, child nutrition and other “categorical” programs to cover basic expenses; and budget and program cuts – and specifically, cuts to class size reduction programs that are not likely to be very popular with the district’s teachers, dozens of whom could face layoffs if class sizes grow.

“Unless we do something now, this loss is an ongoing loss,” the district’s chief financial officer, Tim Rahill, said to a small audience at Henry Haight Elementary School that was mostly made up of teachers and other district staff.

Long-term solutions to the district’s seemingly permanent fiscal crisis could include a permanent parcel tax, one board member said.

“The need to pass a permanent parcel tax is going to be a priority,” school board President Mike McMahon said. And he said the success of that effort is dependent on how well the board handles this crisis.

Last year, the school board put Measure H on the ballot to combat an expected $4 million in state budget cuts over two years. The measure passed, but the state held off on making the cuts. In January, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger released a budget proposal that would reinstate the cuts mid-year and extend them into next year.

The district is also facing increased costs, declining enrollment and the introduction of a new charter school that could cost the district another $2.7 million,Rahill said.

The losses could snowball to $8.9 million by the 2011-12 school year, Rahill said – and grow by $7 million the following year, after the district’s two parcel tax measures sunset. To combat those losses, the board could consider putting a permanent parcel tax measure on the ballot, McMahon said.

Rahill’s presentation didn’t address the potential effects of a $790 billion stimulus bill, which includes money for special education, construction and schools that serve predominantly low-income families. It also didn’t delve into what would happen if business and property owners that have sued to invalidate Measure H succeed in court.

Using “categorical” funds to pay the bills seemed to be the most popular option among the participants assembled at Wednesday’s workshop – provided Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to offer it is accepted by the state Legislature. But the head of the teachers’ union warned that other options like increasing class sizes – which could lead to teacher layoffs – would need to be negotiated with the union before they could be considered.

The district will hold another budget workshop on April 2 at Wood Middle School, and district officials are hoping to have more specific information on the state budget situation then. ThePowerPoint presentation is on McMahon’s indispensable website, here (scroll down to the “Community Fiscal Workshops” heading).

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