What can students and parents in the Northern San Joaquin expect next school year?
After three years of sizable drops in state funding, the 2010-11 school year promises to see decimated programs.
The school year will most likely decrease by five days -- from 180 to 175 -- which means less learning and more day care costs for many families.
Class sizes will balloon in most grade levels. Classes of 20 students in elementary grades will swell to 30 or 35, leaving teachers less time for individual instruction.
Students will have less access to counselors and psychologists, the people who advise bullied children and who make sure high-schoolers are completing the required units to graduate -- and apply to college.
Schools will offer fewer clubs, sports teams, band programs and field trips, which often are credited with keeping students engaged and helping them more effectively compete for spots at colleges.
Some fear schools will look more like warehouses than places of learning and engagement.
"I've heard that Modesto City Schools needs to cut $25 million with cuts they've already done over the past two years," said west Mo- desto dad Abraham Vela. "Where else do you cut? If schools don't offer sports, arts, music, why have a society? We should just go back to the Stone Ages."
Spring budget slashing
Administrators and elected members of boards of education will make several significant decisions over the next few months. Most districts must slash 10 percent to 15 percent of their spending for the next academic year and adopt a budget by June 30.
This round of budget cuts will be the deepest and one of the most devastating in public education history. And the reductions will be more noticeable to parents and students than other recent cutbacks.
"These cuts will be extreme, unsafe, devastating, unbelievable," said Jo Loss, president of the California State Parent Teacher Asso- ciation and a Castro Valley school board member. "I think a lot of people are aghast that children are being treated this way."
PTAs, booster clubs and education foundations will help pick up the slack of funding cuts, but it won't be enough.
Because fewer students are enrolled at area districts over the last six years, officials are getting a smaller pot of funding. And shortages in money from the state combined with declining enrollment forced deeper cuts for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years.
Already instituted hiring and spending freezes will no longer suffice by themselves. Small 1 percent and 3 percent pay cuts also won't hack it anymore. Ceres Unified wants employees to take somewhere near an 8.5 percent salary reduction. Officials there say if funding is close to 2006 levels, employees' compensation also should be.
Some districts -- such as those in Turlock and Oakdale -- are better off than others.
Turlock officials are eyeing a 4 percent cut in spending, but Superintendent Sonny Da Marto said their budget forecast could get worse.
"It's getting pretty desperate out there," he said, adding that schools do much more than just teach.
"There have been more and more things laid on districts to accomplish, including medical and social tasks. If we don't do them, kids go hungry. It makes the cuts even that much more painful -- we're cutting away part of those kids' security."
Cuts hit classrooms
The balancing act administrators and trustees confront is offering quality education in an era of high-stakes testing while school funding is hemorrhaging at an accelerating rate.
Though officials have tried to make cuts invisible over the past few years, "there will be very few places where parents and students do not see the impact" next year, said Terry Anderson, vice president of School Services of California, a group that provides financial advice and assistance to school districts.
"They've used up their reserves and the (federal stimulus) money. Now, they're out of options of doing things where they're not going to be felt. ... Local boards are being forced to make 'Sophie's Choice' decisions," said An- derson, referring to William Styron's Holocaust novel in which a mother sends her daughter to a gas chamber to save her son.
The shorter school year is a consideration. Most educators think American students should attend school longer each year to compete with students in other countries.
But Sacramento will pay districts for 180 days even if the district shortens the year to 175. Fewer school days means less learning, but it helps districts save on utilities, busing, food services, and employee pay.
"With our curriculum, it's already tough to give kids what they need. We have the highest (academic) standards in the nation," said Loss. "For parents, those working in particular, this will be an issue. Child care will have to be more inclusive and flexible."
Many families already can't afford day care, Mo- desto dad Vela said. He said the extra baby-sitting will force some to forgo groceries.
Flex, not cash, from state
The shorter school year is an example of some financial flexibility legislators are giving schools. Another is allowing officials to transfer money earmarked for spe- cific areas into general funds. It helps cushion some cuts, but can also mean the temporary elimination of programs such as Gifted and Talented Education (GATE), vocational or career technical education, art and music grants, money for textbooks, instructional materials and technology, and big-ticket maintenance projects.
Parents also will be asked to help fund programs that survive. Patterson Joint Unified School District Superintendent Patrick Sweeney said he's considering asking community members and parents for donations to cover the $40,000 it costs to bus students to athletic contests.
Modesto parent Sue Zwahlen is taking the optimistic approach when surveying the potentially damaging school cuts.
"I think parents will step up to the plate so these students feel they're getting the education they deserve," said Zwahlen, who also serves on the Modesto City Schools Board of Education.
She added that coaches, teachers and others will have to do more with less resources, but that she's constantly impressed with staff's willingness to give their time and energy, even if it's for free.
But most aren't so upbeat. Parents and employees have packed school board meetings, and will continue to do so, battling for precious programs.
"Obviously since most (districts) are cutting upwards of 10 percent (of their budgets), it's devastating," said Don Gatti, Stanislaus County assistant superintendent of business services. "There's no easy cuts when it reaches this level. ... And it's difficult on the whole community that the districts serve."
And the long-term impact of the budget chopping is even darker, noted state PTA's Loss.
"If we drop the ball on today's second-graders, how will it affect them the rest of their lives?"
Examples of possible spending cuts various districts around the Northern San Joaquin Valley are using or considering:
• Salida and Stanislaus union school districts are sharing a food service director.
• Many districts are considering trimming the school calendar from 180 to 175 days; the state will still fund schools for 180 days of instruction.
• Most districts will reverse a decade-old program of 20 students per teacher in kindergarten through third grade; those class sizes could reach 30 or 35 students.
• High school class sizes are only limited by classroom space, so look for those to reach counts of 40 or 45.
• Counselors, librarians and psychologists whose jobs were spared this year by federal stimulus money likely will not be around next year.
• Schools will start charging new or higher fees for programs such as band, athletics and school busing.
• Electives also face being slashed or eliminated; Sonora High School will reduce or lose electives such as technology, home economics, child development, industrial arts and cabinetmaking.
Although the bulk of school funding is determined by state politicians, decisions on what to cut or keep are made at the local level. Here are some key dates facing school officials:
March 15: Deadline to hand out notices of possible layoffs for the 2010-11 school year to certificated staff, which include teachers, nurses, counselors and some administrators. They can't be laid off without the notice. Negotiations with employee unions over pay cuts, furlough days and larger class sizes continue past this deadline through the spring.
May: Gov. Schwarzen- egger releases a May revision that gives districts a clearer picture of what the 2010-11 budget will look like.
May 15: Deadline to hand out actual pink slips to employees -- both certficated and classified, which include bus drivers, secretaries, cafeteria workers and more.
June 30: Deadline for school district boards of education to approve a 2010-11 budget, even if legislators still haven't passed a state budget.
The California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers will lead statewide demonstrations on March 4 and 5 to voice concerns about ongoing cuts to education. The CTA's Stand Up for Schools is a statewide "day of action" taking place March 4 with rallies, news conferences and other events throughout the state. The CFT will follow those efforts with its 40-day March for California's Future starting in Los Angeles on March 5 and continuing to Sacramento. Local education groups representing K-12 and higher education will participate in these events.
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2339. Read Hatfield's education blog at thehive.modbee.com/ExtraCredit.