At the state level, the governor attached automatic trigger cuts to the budget so the voters know exactly what the consequences will be if the tax measure fails. They are immensely unpopular with the voters, but they serve a number of vital purposes.
There are drawbacks to every course of action, but it might serve the district well to actually have had the debates, the public meetings, and what cuts could be in effect, their own version of trigger cuts, prior to the November election.
Perhaps this is a radical proposal, but perhaps this is just my view that there ought to be transparency. There are clear disadvantages to doing this in advance.
The first is that it will be seen as a scare tactic. Critics will accuse the district of being overly dramatic in an effort to sell the parcel tax to the voters. There are two good responses to that, and the first is that there is really no easy way to cut $7.5 million from the budget. The second is that this will not be an academic exercise. The district will be making real cuts, affecting real people, and they will, by and large, have to live with these cuts.
The second danger is that people will agree with the cuts and see it as evidence that the sky is not going to fall. I do not think there is a real danger of that, but it is there.
The third is that the cuts will anger key constituencies and harm the district’s ability to forge a winning coalition.
Of the three dangers, I think the first is the most serious, coupled with the argument that this move will reap of desperation.
Nevertheless, there are a number of positives that can be gleaned from this, the first being that we are going to have to do this anyway, potentially, for two reasons. First, if the trigger cuts are put into play there will be a six-month period where the district will have to deal without a portion of its funding that would get picked up in 2013-14 should the parcel tax pass.
Second, if the parcel tax does not pass, it gives the district additional time to make the proper decisions.
That leads us to one of the strengths of going through this process early. This community has tremendous capacity to innovate. We get great ideas all the time. Allowing for a prolonged budget discussion will enable the school district to find additional ways to get by, in the event of the unthinkable.
The district has used the parcel tax measures to shore up the core programs and provide the district with necessary programs that other districts have had to cut. There is not a lot of excess to cut at this point.
Some have pointed to the 2.5 vice principal positions at the high school, without offering a whole lot of insight into the jobs that they perform. We know, in fact, that the district in the last round of cuts eliminated some junior high vice principal positions.
While that may draw questions about priorities, it also points to a few things. First, those making decisions evaluated the importance of the vice principal at a junior versus the high school, and felt retaining the high school positions was a priority. Second, someone deemed those positions more important than an equivalent teaching position, as about 50 teachers were laid off.
Finally, the vice principal position at the junior high is one of the positions that community volunteers believe important enough to use their money to restore.
Nevertheless, it appears in the next round of cuts, those vice principal positions would go.
An April article in the Enterprise gives us a flavor: “When a Holmes Junior High School student is found intoxicated on campus, it’s Vice Principal Kerin Kelleher who will accompany her to the emergency room and stay with her until parents arrive.”
“And when a student at Da Vinci Junior High is being bullied, it’s Vice Principal Troy Reeves who will likely be the first to step in.”
In fact, my contact with one of the high school vice principals was based on the alcohol issue, which has apparently become a tremendous problem in the schools.
Before we get too far astray, having budget discussions will force the district to prioritize programs and defend them to the public.
Unfortunately, these discussions lose focus quickly. You do not cut $7.5 million around the edges. We may argue about whether we should really have 2.5 vice principals at the high school, but we know that is a relatively small issue compared to the overall picture.
As we have noted several times, Board President Susan Lovenburg said the board discussed some of this and it would mean a 30 to 65 FTE (full time emploees) reduction on top of this year’s 50 positions that were laid off.
“As Winfred said during the meeting, those aren’t cuts that you can make and keep the doors open,” she said. “So it would involve negotiating concessions to shorten the school year, it would likely involve looking at whether we can consolidate schools, because we’ve really been able to hold that conversation steady – the question of school closure.”
We know from 2008 that school closings are bitter, contentious and take a lot of time and energy. That means having these discussions early will focus parents on the realities that we are facing, while at the same time giving them time to make alternative plans and giving the district the time to weigh all options without having to rush into a decision.
We need to have a discussion about what this district will look like with $7.5 million less in cuts.
The big proposal, in addition to consolidation of schools, will be a discussion of shortening the school year by 15 days. That is what is being proposed at the state level.
The advantage to that proposal is that it creates the concessions by the teachers. It also gives the district maximum flexibility to restore the school year when money comes available.
But it comes at an ultimate cost – the huge drawback is that it takes instructional time away from students. 15 days is three weeks of school. But multiply that out by 13 years for K-12 and you are talking about 195 days or just over a year less of instruction.
The impact on the students would be tremendous if they lost anything approaching a year’s worth of instructional time over the course of their schooling.
I think there is a lot of merit to lay all the proposals on the table, have a full community discussion, and then the community can decide whether they want to pay more in the parcel tax or take the cuts that are on the table.
—David M. Greenwald reporting