By Robert W. Graeff, Ed.D., Superintendent
Ramona Unified School District
In this third letter in a series of open communication to the Ramona community written on behalf of the Ramona Unified School District, it had been my hope to provide a sense of clarity and direction for our local citizenry as we prepare to staff our schools and offices for the coming school year. Although staff is working diligently with the governing board to make final budget and staffing decisions for 2009-10, we are faced with monumental levels of uncertainty as we enter this challenging time of year.
With the passage of the State Budget Act in mid-February, we were able to enhance the district’s financial position by slightly more than $1 million, reducing our budget shortfall for the next 14 months from $7.2 million to $6.1 million. In order to navigate through this still-massive reduction, we have implemented a significant number of freezes, cuts, and transfers to balance our budget. Separately, the state has also provided a certain amount of flexibility in a large number of our ongoing categorical programs (including Summer School and Supplemental Hourly programs, Ninth Grade CSR, School Safety, Arts grants, GATE, and other support programs), allowing us to capture as much as $700,000 more through utilizing the new flexibility and scaling back some or all of these specific programs.
In recent weeks, the public has heard a great deal about the coming of federal stimulus money being allocated for local school districts. If all goes smoothly, we hope to receive three significant sources of federal support later this spring — an increase to Title I funding, an increase to Special Education funding, and a broader funding support being referred to as State Fiscal Stabilization Funds. Though we have received very few specifics about dollar values and release dates for funding, all reliable estimates indicate that these new one-time-only federal dollars will still fall well short of closing the gap between state funding and our local budget needs.
On May 19, all registered voters will be invited to cast their votes to decide the fate of five budget initiatives (Propositions 1A through 1E) designed by the State Legislature to support the state budget through June 2010 and beyond. If unsuccessful (as recent polls appear to indicate), the state will be facing an additional shortfall of more than $6 billion — sparking another round of legislative cuts to our local schools and public services. Coupled with another projected shortfall in tax receipts from April approaching $8 billion, the cuts to public education will likely grow even worse.
Because of this mountain of uncertainty and our own local trend of declining student enrollment, district staff and the governing board continue to believe the wisest course of action to protect both the short-term and long-term fiscal health of our school district is to continue down our current fiscal course of responsible decision-making. As we approach critical decisions in mid-May related to staffing for next year, we continue to maintain a high priority on saving as many jobs as possible.
Not able to save every potential job loss, however, staff’s current plans are to move forward with the elimination of two administrative positions for 2009-10 and the final layoff of 10 classroom teachers and five additional categorically funded, part-time teachers.
Secondly, staff is also recommending the layoff of seven bilingual aides, three special ed aides, two bus drivers, one school secretary, one custodian, two instructional assistants, and one health technician.
Thirdly, staff is recommending the reduction in hours of nine additional classified employees, placing five of them in a non-benefited status. Finally — due to a continued decline in student participation — the Extended Student Program (ESP) will be asked to reduce its payroll by four employees and to reduce the hours of six additional workers.
It goes without saying that there is nothing positive about layoffs — not for the employee, not for the organization, and not for children. Feeling the effects of my wife’s final layoff notice just two weeks ago in a nearby school district, I am very familiar with the anxiety and dissatisfaction that comes from such an action. For these reasons, the governing board has provided clear direction to staff to minimize layoffs as much as possible, prompting staff to recommend a total number of layoffs and reductions in hours for all employee groups which yields just over $1 million in savings, requiring the district to resolve the remaining $5 million deficit with cuts and savings from other resources.
In order to keep job losses as small as possible, we continue to build next year’s budget as tightly as possible. We have implemented an early retirement incentive accepted by 17 veteran teachers, maintained K-3 CSR at 21-to-1 (as opposed to much higher ratios being implemented in neighboring districts), collapsed K-8 Summer School, postponed purchasing the new math adoption for Grades 3-8, reduced site and departmental supply budgets by 30%, reduced watering, reduced funding for certain extra-duty stipends, and committed more than $2 million of allocations from maintenance and set-asides to balance the budget.
Operating schools and district services on a leaner budget in 2009-10 — even before considering a potential defeat on May 19 — will be challenging, but further reducing additional employees and/or rolling back employee salaries to solve our budget woes are the two very last options the governing board and cabinet wish to consider.
Parents and community members who wish to support their local schools further can take several positive actions. Parents of school-aged children can support their local PTA organizations or booster clubs with any financial assistance available to relieve the burdens of specific school programs, or they can volunteer to contribute supplies to their children’s classrooms. Community members are encouraged to contact their local legislative representatives to express their support for funding public education fully so that our students can compete with other students across America for college entrance, jobs, and additional training.
On the horizon, the federal stimulus package is said to be coming with significant — but not all-healing — assistance for some much-needed relief. The next 30 days will produce a great deal of information for district officials and should provide us with the majority of answers we need to complete our required work to adopt a final district budget by June 18. The commitment to the community from my office and our entire governing board is that we will continue to provide the public with accurate information, we will continue to safeguard the fiscal health of our organization, and we will place a premium on protecting the jobs of as many employees as possible without jeopardizing our ability to provide students with the materials and support they require to enjoy a high quality education.
With the community’s help, we need to do everything possible to give our children the very best opportunity to enjoy full and productive lives in their pursuit of the American Dream.