Wednesday, 21 February 2024

Schools hope for stimulus money amidst budget cuts, declining enrollment

LAKE COUNTY – The threat to schools across California due to deep budget cuts has prompted members of California's Congressional Delegation to send a letter to state leaders urging them to take every step possible to prevent teacher layoffs by getting federal stimulus money to school districts. {sidebar id=136}


Local educators hope that the money arrives in time to avert serious damage to educational programs.


The letter, dated March 17, addresses Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Secretary of Education Dr. Glen W. Thomas and State Superintendent of Schools Jack O'Connell.


“We write to express our concern about a reported misunderstanding regarding who should decide how local educational agencies spend State Fiscal Stabilization Funds allocated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” said the letter, whose signatories included 26 members of Congress, among them North Coast Congressman Mike Thompson.


The members of Congress addressed the suggestion that the state has the ability to intercept stabilization fund dollars – which they emphasized it does not.


Officials reported that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed by President Barack Obama last month, includes a state stabilization fund to give states emergency relief.


That relief would help stave off teacher layoffs, as well as backfilling harmful cuts to education programs. In addition, funds would be available to repair and modernize schools, which would create jobs.


The legislation's structure gives states the funds, and then the states would allocate the money to school districts and colleges and universities.


The plan allocates over $5.9 billion in stabilization funding to California, officials reported.


Thompson's office is still compiling final number estimates for Lake County's schools.


Congress' intent, the letter stated, is that local educational agencies may determine how they will use stabilization funds. The money also is meant to be allocated from the state to school districts and higher education institutions as soon as possible.


“The purpose of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund is to help stabilize local government budgets, to minimize or avoid harmful cuts to education programs and services, to keep teachers in the classroom, and to support modernization, renovation, and repair of school facilities,” the letter stated.“It is imperative that local educational agencies receive stimulus funds as soon as possible so they can appropriately adjust their budgets to address these challenges.”


The letter added that thousands of California's teachers will be laid off in the coming weeks without the infusion of stimulus funding, and they asked Schwarzenegger and education leaders to quickly resolve issues relating to the funding, which could be done with the technical assistance of the US Department of Education.


“Any delay in funding local educational agencies may have dire consequences for children and teachers in our great state,” the letter added.


Local education cuts go deep


On March 13, educators, parents and students gathered in downtown Lakeport on “Pink Friday” to send a message to Sacramento – that the level of cuts to education isn't acceptable. Pam Klier, president of Lakeport's California Teachers Association chapter, said the “deep, drastic cuts” facing schools will change how teachers are able to do their jobs.


Based on a poll of school districts, Lake County News estimates that 112.3 school employees – many of those teachers, but also including some administrators and classified staff – have received layoff notices so far this year. Many more classified staff may be laid off in the weeks ahead.


In the Lakeport Unified School District, 17 employees were given layoff notices – 13 classified and four certificated – earlier this month in an effort to meet a shortfall $800,000 resulting from both state cuts and lost revenue.


In the Konocti Unified School District, 53 teachers and eight administrators have received layoff notices, which amounts to a reported quarter of the district's teaching staff.


While the district has said that it expects to be able to hire many of those teachers and administrators back, it has the challenge of a $1.2 million budget cut in the coming fiscal year. The Konocti Unified board voted March 11 to close Oak Hill Middle School as a cost-saving measure.


Stimulus funding amounts still unclear


Countywide, Lake County Superintendent of Schools Dave Geck has estimated school districts will face a total of $5.7 million in cuts over the next 16 months.


So local districts are hoping the federal stimulus money will be able to offer them some relief.


Konocti Unified district officials said during a school board hearing on March 18 that the district is estimated to receive $880,000 in stimulus funds, but that still hasn't been confirmed.


Geck said it's still not clear just how much stimulus money could be coming to Lake County.


“We only have initial projections from the feds,” he said. “The amounts have not yet been confirmed by the state since the initial projections did not include charted schools and special school programs like our juvenile hall and community school programs.”


Geck said he expects that the state will identify the specific amounts sometime this week since the funds are going to be released by the end of the month by the federal Department of Education.


Whether the money actually will arrive in time to avert damage to programs is harder to answer, said Geck.


The stimulus funds won't be enough to cover all the cuts local schools are facing, but Geck said if the funds are released quickly and available to be used by school districts to help mitigate the budget cuts, some of the damage will be repaired.


He noted that some of the funds coming from the federal stimulus package are targeted for certain specific purposes, including Title I, which supports student achievement for children in low socio-economic brackets and supporting student achievement for students with identified disabilities. Geck added that some of the funds are more discretionary in nature.


In addition, budget cuts can be avoided if the six propositions to aid school funding, which will go before voters in a special May 19 election, pass and if the revenue projections that will be part of the governor's May budget revise are not as terrible as currently projected.


Declining enrollment challenges local districts


While stimulus money is looked at as help in current difficult times, all of the district superintendents point to consistently declining enrollments as a longterm issues for local schools.


In Kelseyville, Superintendent Boyce McClain said the district is facing a budget cut of just under $1 million in the coming fiscal year.


He has four teachers retiring, and three of those positions will not be replaced. That prevented the district from having to issue layoff notices by the March 15 deadline.


So far, the district has had no classified layoffs, but there may yet be some classified layoffs at the end of April, McClain said.


Middletown Unified Superintendent Korby Olson said his district was able to absorb the roughly $530,000 in mid-year budget cuts for 2008-09.


Still ahead in the 2009-10 fiscal year is an estimated cut of just over $1 million from the district's general fund, with 15.3 certificated positions slated to be cut, which includes some administrative slots.


“We haven't done classified yet,” he said. “We have a different deadline on those.”


Olson said the majority of the certificated cuts are a result of declining enrollment.


Over the last several years, enrollment losses have been fairly spread out. But then it began to accelerate last year, when the district lost 30 students. This year, they lost 65 more.


Olson believes a few things explain the lower enrollment. For one, there were a few years of low birthrates, and students in better birthrate years are coming into the school system. There also are many people leaving the county because of the lack of work opportunities.


At Upper Lake High, Superintendent and Principal Patrick Iaccino said they've laid off a total of 11 classified and certificated staff.


He hopes that, in the worst case scenario, they'll only end up losing a maximum of two teachers and three classified staff, since the district is being creative in handling planned retirements, which may allow them to bring back some staffers on at least a part-time basis.


Sue Milhaupt, Upper Lake High's business manager, said the district is looking at $511,000 in cuts – $236,000 for this fiscal year, and $275,000 in 2009-10.


Changes to rules for how to spend categorical funding will give districts more flexibility, Iaccino said, which means cuts in the coming year may not have to go as deep as previously anticipated.


However, the school's music program appears to be in danger of being cut. Iaccino said he didn't yet know the outlook for the music program, noting there are a lot of ifs in the budget process.


One thing is for sure, said Iaccino – the bigger issue is declining enrollment, which promises to hurt school budgets long after the current economic crisis.


The high school district stands to lose an estimated 100 students over the next five to six years, which Iaccino said amounts to more than $700,000 in lost income for the district on an annual basis.


Iaccino calls it one of the most difficult scenarios the district has ever faced.


If enrollment numbers don't improve, “this doesn't end for us,” he said.


Upper Lake Elementary School District also has been seeing declining enrollment for some time.


District Superintendent and Principal Kurt Herndon said they've lost an estimated 100 students in the past six or seven years. Losing that number of students equates to a loss of roughly $500,000 for the small district, which has a $4 million annual budget.


“We're so small just a few kids is quite an impact on us,” Herndon said, estimating that many young families were priced out of the housing market during its height and so they left the county.


The result is that the district has been trimming its budget for years, and gave out two layoff notices this year, one to a person in a one-year position and the second to a kindergarten teacher who they hope to have back if next year's kindergarten class fills up. They also have lost a custodian position through attrition, when the person retired last fall.


Herndon said they're doing their budget right now, so they're not sure of the amount of cuts they're facing.


Lucerne Elementary Principal and District Superintendent Mike Brown said his school is anticipating being down 10 students in the coming year. Currently the school's enrollment is about 260 students. Brown said enrollment has declined by about 10 students a year in the past several years.


Brown said the district has issued two layoff notices to teachers and will lay off four part-time classified employees, with hours to some other classified staff cut back. He said one teacher may be coming back.


At this point, Brown said the budget numbers can be confusing. For the remainder of this year, they're looking at $71,000 in cuts. Next year will see greater cuts, but those numbers aren't certain yet. The district has an annual budget of about $2.5 million.


When 85 to 90 percent of a school district's budget is salaries, there's no way to make deep cuts without cutting jobs, Brown said.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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