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Budget crisis hits Fallbrook school districts

With no budget certainties from the State of California, Fallbrook Union High School District (FUHSD) and Fallbrook Union Elementary School District (FUESD) are making preparations for extreme cutbacks in the months ahead.

The FUHSD board of trustees began preparing for the blow on the district’s budget after receiving news of California’s financial situation in January.

In a regular meeting on Monday, February 9, the board discussed the need to cut more than $950,000 for fiscal year 2008-2009, more than $1.5 million for FY 2009-2010 and more than $650,000 for FY 2010-2011.

Before discussing recommendations for reductions in expenses and income-generating ideas, FUHSD Superintendent Dale Mitchell outlined three priorities to which he feels the district needs to adhere before making final decisions.

“The first priority is to provide the highest quality educational program and services possible with the limited resources we have,” said Mitchell, who emphasized the need to implement strategies to best invest the remaining $28 million in the budget.

The second priority Mitchell referenced is for the district to examine its circumstance and see it as an opportunity to explore structures and strategies that will maintain, if not increase, the effectiveness of the programs and services needed with less money.

The third priority Mitchell set was to retain fiscal stability, as failure to do so could result in consequences from the San Diego County Office of Education, possibly including the loss of local control in financial decision-making.

“We need to look at both non-personnel and personnel expenditure reductions, which will have an adverse impact on the district,” said Mitchell. “I wish I could say we could make the budget adjustments without looking at personnel, but 75 to 80 percent of the budget expenses are personnel-related.”

The board tried to remain positive while listening to reports and was relieved to hear Mitchell say employee layoffs were not anticipated for the current school year.

However, Board President Bill O’Connor did say that juggling district funds is a “one-time solution” and “real” cuts would have to be made for the 2009-2010 year.

“We are obviously looking at what we can do with our funds [for 2009-2010], but since we do not know what the funds are, we don’t want to destroy or crucify next year,” said O’Connor. “What we consider to be good might not be good enough. It will be a devastating next year if the full cuts are implemented.”

O’Connor asked if there was any way to adjust the non-personnel budget allowances, but Chet Gannet, assistant superintendent of business services, explained that the non-personnel section of the budget was mostly “untouchable” supplies, such as teaching materials and cleaning supplies, that are needed to run the district properly.

“Even if we were able to adjust the non-personnel expenditures, it would not be anywhere near close to enough,” said Gannet.

Mitchell said the district has discussed “a variety of options” with the Fallbrook Union High School Teachers Association (union) and thus far have only agreed upon offering an early retirement incentive for teachers.

The FUHSD board is expected to review a draft of recommended expenditure reductions at their regular meeting on February 24.

FUESD is facing similar budget woes, according to a letter sent by district superintendent Janice Schultz to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stating that elementary district officials have “never seen a murkier budget outlook.”

“We are looking at a $10 million budget cut,” Schultz wrote. “I have to send layoff notices to 80 teachers because I don’t know if I am going to have…categorical money or flexibility.”

Cutting FUESD’s budget by $10 million would bring it down to $52 million.

Schultz said the layoff plan is so deep that permanent teachers hired in 1999 will receive notices, as will “the young, well-trained and enthusiastic teachers.”

Also mentioned in the letter was the need to receive a state education budget on time for future years, as this would allow school districts to plan instructional programs to best utilize the resources available.

FUESD also faces what some consider unnecessary expenses because of restrictions in the Education Code, such as Code 44956. This code assures any laid-off permanent teacher the right to substitute at his or her per diem pay, significantly driving up substitute teacher costs for districts having to reduce permanent teachers.

FUESD’s certificated substitute costs in 2009-2010 would triple based on the code’s provision, given the likelihood of permanent teachers being laid off at the end of the school year.

Schultz said she has met with a large group of people, including teachers and classified employees, to identify areas that would be “brought back” if the budget improves.

Schultz also said that while the district is in a “collaborative relationship” with the Fallbrook Union Elementary Teachers Association, they have not begun to bargain for union concessions to make the budget cuts easier.

“I have always heard that education is our number one priority, but it isn’t,” said Schultz. “I think teachers perform miracles with the skimpiest of resources. We need adequate resources and the flexibility to direct them to meet the needs of our students.”

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