By Robert W. Graeff, Ed.D.
Superintendent, Ramona Unified School District
On behalf of the Ramona Unified School District, I am writing the first of a series of open letters to the community detailing how California’s current budget woes are affecting our local schools. As the weeks unfold, it is my hope to offer more of these articles in an effort to keep our children’s parents and the Ramona citizens informed about the state of our district’s tenuous financial challenges.
Budget shortfall is a two-year problem
Based on the governor’s proposed budget for 2010-11, our staff is projecting a budget shortfall in 2010-11 of approximately $8.3 million. This estimated loss results from several factors. First, the governor’s proposal includes a reduction of $1.5 million in various revenue cuts. We will lose $3.4 million in one-time funding, resulting from a loss of federal stimulus funds and categorical shortfalls which must be backfilled. Continued declining enrollment will account for another $1.6 million. Servicing the employee salary schedule and paying for an increase in employee benefits is being calculated at $1.2 million. Finally, a potential loss of revenue to support our students in group homes may cost the district as much as $0.6 million.
This potential $8.3 million cut from our $50 million budget will be very difficult to overcome.
At the same time, it is critically important that all local stakeholders view our budget challenges as at least a two-year problem. Utilizing the best data currently available, our staff is projecting an additional budget shortfall of $3.8 million in 2011-12 — making the need even greater to reduce costs next year. And although the governor has promised to “protect” public education, he has built a state budget with a $6.9 billion hole which he is hoping to be filled by another round of federal bailout funds. Our governing board will be asked to address this very precarious situation in the next few weeks.
In order to develop a balanced budget, our governing board is currently considering a long list of proposed cuts — none of which will be easy to make. In working with the board, staff has developed the following criteria for making budget reductions:
1. Protect essential services and programs for children.
2. Continue to support initiatives which maintain or advance the district’s mission and goals.
3. Maintain reasonable class sizes, K-12.
4. Maintain as many jobs as possible.
5. Support staff compensation and benefits to the fullest extent possible.
6. Position ourselves for an even more challenging budget year in 2011-12.
Proposed budget reductions
As described last week to the board, staff is asking the board for reductions in the following areas:
1. Reserve funds and cash contributions of $4.6 million.
2. School and departmental supplies and materials of $430,000.
3. Shifting and/or elimination of specific categorical resources of $450,000.
4. District office cuts of $240,000.
More painfully, staff is asking for board support for reducing our current personnel. An early retirement incentive accepted by 16 teachers last month should yield about $1.4 million in district savings. Still, more personnel cuts are likely necessary. Administratively, we are asking to reduce two administrative positions and we are projecting the need to reduce as many as 12 more elementary teachers and 5.7 more secondary teachers. If one of the governor’s initiatives currently before the Legislature related to “per diem” pay for substitute teachers fails, however, the district will likely call back all elementary layoffs and staff K-3 classrooms at 20-to-1 in 2010-11. Although the legal timelines for classified staff provides us with more time for planning, we are currently projecting the need to reduce as many as 15-20 more classified positions. Altogether, these personnel reductions could yield as much as $1.3 million in budget savings.
As painful as these cuts may be, this proposed package of reductions appears to enable the district to come very close to its projected budget gap in the coming school year. Before taking too big a sigh of relief, however, there is another perspective yet to consider.
Undoubtedly, members of the community have heard media reports of neighboring school districts which are considering the layoffs of hundreds of employees and asking for salary rollbacks anywhere between 5% and 12%. Because of our very careful planning the past few years and our current approach to scrubbing every line of the budget, we have been able to avoid — so far — these kinds of very draconian solutions. Even after 10 years of declining enrollment, our local leadership has made very tough, belt-tightening choices year after year to avoid the same kind of gut-wrenching reductions being enacted elsewhere in our county.
At the same time, however, my office is determined to ensure that the board and each employee group view the state’s budget problems as at least a two-year challenge. If we choose to close the budget gap for 2010-11 without any further program cuts, layoffs, and/or employee concessions in salary or benefits, we will have absolutely no other resources to buy down the projected $3.8 million shortfall in 2011-12. Conversely, if the district can reduce additional ongoing costs in the coming school year, those savings will continue into 2011-12, significantly reducing additional risk to district solvency.
Last week, I asked for all employees to adopt a spirit of genuine collaboration. The sooner we can approach our budget difficulties with meaningful, honest dialogue and a collective sense of sacrificing for the good of the whole, the less stress we will place on our schools, our younger employees, and our district’s families. In the coming weeks, district administrators will be meeting with our respective employee groups to negotiate next year’s contracts.
Of my two most fervent wishes, one is that all employees look at the bigger picture of what we do as an institution and seek to preserve the core of our most critical educational programs. As always, my other wish is that all employees continue to focus first and foremost on the achievement, safety, and well-being of each student in our 10 schools — as only our talented and caring Ramona staff members can.
Over the next several months, I hope to continue to provide the community with updated budget information. Any support that local citizens wish to offer in communicating our district message to our local legislators would be helpful. During this time, however, probably the two best ways for Ramona residents to assist our local schools are to support our local school-aged children so that they continue to focus on their daily studies and to remain calm and appreciative as our local leaders grapple with maintaining excellent services for children in an era of dwindling resources.