Modesto school board candidates: Ways to save, build cash

October 17, 2009 

Forget the usual election-year promises to shrink class sizes and increase teacher salaries. They wouldn't reflect reality this fall.

The candidates who win election to the Modesto City Schools Board of Education will grapple with at least $15 million in spending cuts for the next school year. After two consecutive years of deep cuts, officials will be downsizing even more. Lowering salaries, closing schools, laying off employees and making further reductions to programs are likely.

The nine candidates for four seats on the Board of Education discussed details with The Bee about how they would trim from the district's $250 million budget if elected.

Solange Altman

A big proponent of increasing revenue flowing into the district, Altman wants to look at closing schools and leasing them to other entities. Altman would review costly consultant contracts. The district is paying $180,000 to a consultant for its strategic plan, and additional money on substitutes when teachers are out for training, she said.

"We can't afford to do that when you're in a fiscal crisis," Altman said.

Though she knows that's not enough, Altman says cuts to employees and programs should be minimal. She said she wants to see furloughs or employee salary cuts to save jobs and that she would fight to keep class sizes small.

Nancy Cline

Cline is trying to be creative by suggesting cuts to administra- tor mileage stipends, Saturday school, principal workdays during the summer, legal costs and consultant fees. She likes the idea of having administrators substitute teach occasionally to save on costs and keep them connected to what's happening in the classroom.

Increasing class sizes is something Cline said the district might have to do.

"I don't know how we're going to avoid that," she said. "We need to look at each position and look at the amount of students that position reaches."

Steve Collins

"Every cost center of the district is going to suffer loses — management, classified and certificated are going to take reductions," Collins said. "I hope we can get substantial enough givebacks from those three groups so program cuts can be minimized."

Collins said he would fight to keep music, arts and sports programs. And though consultant fees are blasted by other candidates, Collins points to the improved curriculum and teaching the district receives.

He said the $180,000 for the district's strategic plan was spent over three years, and that the price tag is "peanuts" compared with the $15 million in cuts officials are bracing for.

Cindy Marks

Marks favors closing elementary schools, because they have seen the largest decline in students and cutting administrator mileage stipends. But her biggest aim is employee salary reductions.

"The salary is the largest percentage of the budget, so it's the largest amount of money that will make a difference," she said, noting that cuts in administration should be part of that equation.

Marks said she hopes to protect music, art and sports and as many jobs as possible.

Though many employees and community members believe there are too many managers, Marks said, she's not sure that's the case but is open to examining the issue.

Belinda Rolicheck

Rolicheck said she's interested in looking at the consolidation of west Modesto's Pearson and Franklin elementary schools, something that is being discussed by administrators. She said she wants to consider leasing vacant schools to another group.

Rolicheck said she wants to see employees pay for more of their health care costs. She said classified employees have taken the brunt of cuts the previous two years, so she wants to see them spared a little this time around.

"I don't want to see any more cuts to arts, music and sports. I think they've been cut to the bone. If we cut them any more, we're going to have to eliminate them altogether and I don't want to do that."

Jim Standart

Standart supports looking at the district office first for any and all spending cuts. He thinks the central office can downsize its administrative ranks and eliminate manager perks, such as mileage stipends.

"The gas allowances are incredibly stupid as far as I'm concerned," he said. "They get $500 (a month) with no accountability. And when it's not all used, it goes into their pockets. Their gas should be reimbursed for miles used, like all other employees."

Outside the district office, Standart said, he would look at closing some schools and assessing which programs work best for students; he supports saving such programs as vocational education.

Josh Vander Veen

Vander Veen is looking to the community for help funding programs the district has to reduce because of spending cuts.

"If you look at the (Modesto City Schools board race's) campaign donations, money is still out there," he said. "Some candidates are raising $20,000 in donations and we can't fund band?"

In addition, Vander Veen would look at streamlining administration at the district office and at schools. He said he's not sure high schools need four vice principals. He's a fan of consolidating districts, especially those in the greater Modesto area.

Ruben Villalobos

Even though he's a lawyer, Villalobos said if he's elected, he'll try to cut spending on the district's attorneys.

He favors consolidating programs instead of cutting them. For example, instead of closing Pearson Elementary next school year, he would expand it from a kindergarten and first-grade school to a K-3 campus because it specializes in early childhood education.

As for cuts to employee pay or jobs, Villalobos prefers spreading the pain evenly.

"We need to look at what is being wasted. I think the district office needs to look at those symbolic cuts, like the mileage stipends for administrators," Villalobos said. "I think the rank and file would be much more open to whatever is necessary from them."

Sue Zwahlen

The only candidate to waver on her answer, Zwahlen said it's difficult to detail where she would reduce the district's budget because she's not on the inside.

"I think it's impossible for me to say from this perspective," she said. "I'm not on the board."

If elected, Zwahlen said, she would keep her eye on the big picture. She would want all department managers and principals to identify their own cuts and bring those to the board.

"I need more information, more of a vision of where we're trying to go," she said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339. Read Hatfield's education blog at thehive.modbee.com/ExtraCredit.

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