School district implements spending, hiring freeze | SierraSun.com

School district implements spending, hiring freeze

Renee Shadforth

There’s a chill at Tahoe Truckee Unified School District. In the wake of the state budget crisis, district administrators imposed a freeze on hiring and spending for unnecessary items for staff and faculty.

These spending halts come after Governor Gray Davis estimated he would cut $1.9 billion, mid-year, from public education in December. In January, he tagged $803.9 million onto that total.

And the numbers could keep changing.

“I’ve never seen so much uncertainly,” said the district’s Business Manager Ralph Johnson. “The only certainty I see is that we need to reduce our spending.”

For Tahoe Truckee Unified, statewide cuts could mean nearly $1.4 million in reductions and deferrals for the rest of the school year – a significant amount for a district that has spent 47 percent of its original 2002/2003 budget

The California State Legislature set a deadline to have all mid-year cuts finalized by Jan. 31.

“When [the cuts] do come, we’ll have to look at some very draconian sorts of things,” said district Superintendent Pat Gemma. “It will affect many lives. I don’t even want to project. It will affect teachers’ lives, students’ lives and the lives of families. We want to be as fair and as compassionate as possible.”

The district imposed the hiring freeze, to reduce unnecessary spending and provide vacancies that can be used to place people from discontinued programs through attrition, not layoffs, Johnson said. The business manager also wants to investigate early retirement incentives for senior personnel.

If district administrators choose to lay off employees, school code dictates that faculty must be informed by March 15, which means if layoffs are necessary, administrators must begin the process soon.

“School districts across the state are going to have to look at layoffs,” Johnson said. “Do we want to do layoffs? No. I surely don’t want to panic people.”

In addition to staff, most categorical programs may also take a hit.

The state plans to take 64 categorical programs – including transportation, instructional materials, Gifted and Talented Education and the School Improvement Program – fold them into a block grant and make a 10.82 percent reduction across the board. Before the proposed cuts, districts were only allowed to allocate certain percentages per category. With the block grant, district administrators will have more flexibility with how they appropriate funds.

However, the block grant takes the dirty work out of the hands of politicians and puts it into the hands of local agencies, Johnson said.

“Legislators tend to want to come out of tough times looking as good as possible,” he said. “You don’t want to be known as the politician who cut programs. They may be giving us flexibility, which we need, but the 64 categorical block grant has some problems.”

Special education, child nutrition and child development, among other categoricals, will be excluded from the proposed block grant. Davis’ budget predicts 3.66 percent reductions for special education programs.

Parcel Tax

In addition to spending and hiring freezes, the district may also look into revising the parcel tax. With current Measure A revenues, the district brings in roughly $2.6 million per year.

If an increase in the parcel tax is put to vote, it would happen mid-summer and require a two-thirds majority.

“If the state is taking money away from the local community, the local community can decide to take control,” Johnson said.

However, he added, district administrators won’t recommend an increase until they know how much extra funding they will need.

According to Johnson, it’s the most dire state budget situation he’s seen in more than 20 years of managing school finances.

“This is not a one-year problem. It’s a multi-year problem.”

Regardless, Johnson and the district are still trying to look beyond the immediate issues.

“We can deal with it,” he said. “It’s not beyond our capability. We’ll get through and times will change.”