Schools prepare for precarious budget season | SierraSun.com

Schools prepare for precarious budget season

Katherine Morris

News of a possible $1.9 billion mid-year budget cut for education by Gov. Gray Davis has administrators in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District on edge.

As it appears that state revenues this year will be several billion dollars less than originally projected, Davis has called a special session of the legislature, scheduled to begin next week, to consider mid-year cuts of as much as $5 billion in spending.

“Analysts are saying that as much as $1.9 billion of that could come out of education,” said TTUSD Superintendent Pat Gemma.

“Now, this is probably a worst case scenario, but the way things are going with the state’s budget, it seems inevitable that mid-year cuts of some kind will be made,” he added in reference to the state’s deficit, which is estimated at close to $30 billion.

“I’ve been in this business for 32 years and I’ve never seen a picture that was so bleak,” said TTUSD Business Administrator Bob Nehls. “As we are funded by the state, though, if the state has problems, so do we.”

Just what kind of impact could cuts of this magnitude have on the district?

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“Although it’s not sure where those cuts would be made for education, if Davis takes away from ADA (average daily attendance), it could take away as much as $350 per student,” Gemma said. “If you take that amount and multiple it by our current enrollment, which is about 4,300, that’s about $1.2 million dollars in cuts to our district.”

Cutting the district’s budget by that much in the middle of the school year would not only compromise, but possibly wipe out the district’s state-mandated reserve for economic uncertainty, as well as require TTUSD to make what Gemma labeled “draconian cuts to both program and staffing.”

The community could expect to see further increases in class sizes, staff reduction in all sectors, cuts at the district office, and elimination and reallocation of funding for various programs – just to name a few potential contributing problems.

“We’d be irreparably damaged by these cuts and we are one of the healthier districts,” he said. “This will really cripple some of the other school districts.”

To complicate things further, all of this comes at a time when the district continues to experience a continual decline in student enrollment – a decline that means less revenue for the district each year.

The four-year decline, combined with rising operating costs, has led to continued losses in revenue each year.

This year, Gemma says the numbers are down by as much as 75 students.

Those revenue losses, combined with mid-year cuts last year, have already led the district to make cuts in staffing for the current year, including closing the district office one day per week and increasing student-teacher ratios from 28-to-1 to 29-to-1 at various grade levels.

To complicate things further, all of this comes at a time when the district is in knee-deep in negotiations with TTEA, the local teachers’ union. After more than nine months of negotiations last year, the district and TTEA made a deal that negotiations would begin much earlier this year, with the district agreeing to make a final offer to the union by Nov. 30.

“We have made a proposal to TTEA and did meet our deadline,” Gemma said. He added that the proposal is not yet public.

The union is expected to look at that proposal at a special meeting today, Dec. 5.

“We spent several pages detailing the financial state of our district and the possibility of mid-year cuts,” Gemma said. “We want our employees to know that we value them tremendously and that they are a priority. We realize that it is in our best interest to provide the highest compensation package possible in order to recruit and retain the best employees.”

“We also want to maintain a quality relationship through the negotiation process,” he added. “The district has a responsibility though, too, not bankrupt the district. Right now, it’s a difficult balancing act. “

Nehls encouraged staff and the community to pay close attention to the state budget as the story continues to unfold.

“The TTUSD board is well aware of the difficult decisions they are going to have to make in the future and they want an opportunity to discuss those decisions with parents and community members,” Gemma said. “We’re trying to organize two community forums in late January, early February, one on each side of the district. By that point in time, we should have a much better idea of what kind of situation we’ll be dealing with.”