Schools feeling the pinch
When school Superintendent Pat Gemma first arrived in Truckee four years ago, the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District was in decay, at risk of being taken over by the state because of its financial shortcomings.
But somehow, through a series of marathon meetings, bond measures and the hard work of the district and concerned community members, the TTUSD pulled through the crisis, increased its reserve and managed to get back on its feet again.
This year, however, the district is once again facing financial woes as a result of unprecedented mid-year state budget cuts and a flailing California economy.
“For the first time ever, the state took money away from public schools in January, money that we had already factored into our budget and quite possibly, already spent,” Gemma said.
According to Gemma, these cuts are largely due to both the energy crisis and the aftershocks of Sept. 11, which left the state with a more than $12 billion deficit.
“Unlike a lot of states, our public schools are completely dependent on state funding,” he said. “So as our state budget goes, so goes our education budget.”
Just how much money was taken away from TTUSD in January?
According to Bob Nehls, TTUSD business manager, the cuts amounted to roughly $150,000.
“Originally, we thought we were going to lose close to $300,000, so things weren’t actually as bad as we expected,” Nehls said.
However, while Gemma said that $150,000 may sound like a drop in the bucket, considering the district has an approximately $33 million annual budget, these cuts only create further challenges for a district that has been experiencing a decline in student enrollment over the last couple of years.
“Due to the rapid increase in both the cost of housing and living in the district, a lot of people have been moving out of the area in recent years,” Gemma said.
In March of the 1999-00 school year, TTUSD reported a total enrollment of 4,739, but in March of last year, enrollment was down to 4,564, a loss of 175. The numbers for this seem to show that that the decline is slowing, as TTUSD reported a total of 4,494 students, a loss of 50.
Since the district receives state funding based on the number of students it serves, declining enrollment has continued to eat away at the amount of state funding coming in, even though each year, the district’s operating costs continue to climb.
“If we were in a district that was growing in the number of students, these mid-year cuts really wouldn’t be as big of a concern,” Gemma said.
Although Gemma and Nehls said the district will be able to maintain the mandatory 3 percent budget reserve for economic uncertainties for the remainder of the school year, TTUSD is going to have to tighten its belt, particularly for the 2002-03 school year.
“I have serious concerns about education not being funded properly,” said North Tahoe Middle School Principal Dave Curry. “Any time that you cut funding, it greatly impacts the projects that you’ve been working to build. The staff, in particular, really determines the quality of your programs, and if we’re going to have to let staff go, it will greatly affect morale.”
At this point, the district has already sent out possible layoff notices to some sectors of the teaching staff, mainly those employed on a temporary basis.
According to Nehls, though, receiving a layoff notice in no way guarantees that layoffs will even occur.
“We’re hoping to deal with our budget problems through attrition this year rather than layoffs,” Nehls said.
Through attrition, the district would simply wait to see who files for a leave of absence or retirement at the end of the school year, and would likely choose not to restaff those vacant positions rather than have layoffs.
One area that Curry said he is not concerned about is the future of the extensive remodeling and construction projects in the works for both the North Tahoe middle and high schools.
“Most of the funding for those projects is coming from bond measures and has already been earmarked specifically for them,” Curry said.
Another cause for concern is the effect that budget cuts will have on the ongoing contract negotiations between TTUSD and the various unions.
“Currently, the unions are still negotiating this year’s contracts, even though the year is almost two-thirds over,” said Michael Merriman, TTEA president. “The budget cuts certainly aren’t helping the situation and have delayed the negotiating process.”
Although Merriman said he could not discuss negotiations at this point in time, he said that everyone is trying to stay positive about the future.
Suzette Seagoe, a librarian for Glenshire Elementary School, agreed that at this point, people are trying to make the best of a difficult situation.
“There’s still so many unknowns at this point,” Seagoe said. “We had been taking some steps forward financially as a district and now we’re having to stop and take a few steps back to rethink some things.”
One thing Seagoe said she is thankful for is that library funding is fairly secure.
“However, the state’s library funding is very specific in the ways that money can be spent,” she said. “For example, if a teacher comes to me and wants to order a book for a class that isn’t part of the course’s regular curriculum, I may not have the funds to purchase that book.”
Seagoe also expressed concern with the effects of declining enrollment and day-to-day student attendance.
“Every time a student is absent, the district loses money, which is why we really need to find ways to educate parents about the importance of attendance — not just for the sake of their child’s education but for the sake of the district,” she said.
Mardiece Patrick, treasurer of the Parent Teacher Organization at Truckee Elementary, said that budget cuts will likely impact the way the group decides to fund projects.
“We haven’t specifically discussed the [possible cuts] at this point, but if the district is really strained and we start receiving more and more requests for funding, we’re really going to have to take a closer look at what we say yes to,” Patrick said. “Up until now, we’ve been able to say yes to just about every request that we receive.”
Another concern is how Prosser Creek, the TTUSD charter school, will be affected.
“We’re definitely gearing down for it, but I don’t expect us to be quite as impacted as other district schools because we don’t qualify, as a charter, for many of the district programs that are in jeopardy,” said Prosser Creek Executive Director Jayna Gaskell.
“We do want to open up communication with the district on the issue, however, and are very interested in working with [TTUSD] to make sure that we don’t make anything more difficult.”
Meanwhile, as the community keeps tabs on the latest budget developments coming out of the governor’s office, the TTUSD budget committee is hard at work drafting solutions for the upcoming year.
“We’re really trying to find ways to cut costs and increase our revenues without eliminating too many programs or resorting to layoffs,” said Bob Phariss, sixth-grade science and math teacher at Sierra Mountain Middle School and budget committee member.
Phariss said one such idea would be to increase the teacher-to-student ratio for secondary schools from 28-to-1 to 29-to-1.
“This could potentially save four teaching positions and close to $200,000,” he said. “We can’t and won’t touch the ratio in other grades because of Measure A guidelines, though. The district takes those guidelines very seriously.”
Superintendent Gemma said that other budget-saving measures include renting out empty district classrooms, limiting overtime, and limiting the hours that the district office is open to the public to four days a week instead of five.
“I think this will be a significant start to reducing our costs,” Gemma said.
Both Nehls and Gemma stressed that despite the district’s problems, TTUSD is not in the crisis situation it was in four years ago.
“We’ve actually got more money than is required in our reserves at this point,” Nehls said. “The good news is also that declining enrollment seems to have slowed and leveled off in the last year.”
TTUSD Board Member Karen Van Epps said she was also optimistic.
“The greatest thing about our district is that we are all survivors,” she said. “We always come together in times of crisis and we’ll be able to get through this, too.”
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