Teachers, students and parents took to the streets last week to demonstrate their concern about public school budget cuts.
In Stanislaus County districts, $60 million has been cut over the past three years, and about 800 full-time positions have been eliminated. Another 800 jobs could disappear for the 2010-11 school year.
The Modesto City Schools faces the most daunting red ink. It needs to cut at least $25 million for next year, an amount that could increase depending on the economy and how the Legislature handles the state budget.
Modesto's mammoth amount is partly due to the district's size and its declining enrollment -- but also because it chose to not lay off teachers for the current year.
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Modesto has firmly identified about $6.3 million in cuts so far. The big ticket items include $1.8 million from a management reorganization, $1 million in deferred maintenance, and about $1 million from postponing purchase of new textbooks.
That leaves nearly $18.7 million still to be cut. And with salary and benefits accounting for 87 percent of the district budget, it's inevitable that personnel will be dramatically affected.
We offer three observations:
Magnitude of the necessary cuts. The district solicited public input at two forums and in an online survey. But the results suggest people haven't grasped the magnitude of the problem.
The survey may have contributed to that by including things that in the scope of the budget aren't significant. The items most cited by the community as most appropriate for cuts -- business cards, bottled water, travel expenses and cell phones -- add up to little more than nickels and dimes in the big picture.
Community members want small class sizes, counselors and programs such as music preserved. We do, as well, but we're not sure how feasible that is given the scope of the problem.
Some of those attending forums complained they weren't given sufficient information, including dollar estimates, to make meaningful comments.
This leads us to a second concern:
Where the decisions will be made. Ideally, the board would confront its toughest decisions in open sessions, where the public can provide direct input on programs such as sports, music and class sizes. But most of that has to be negotiated with the employee unions, and those talks are closed.
Last week the school board authorized sending layoff notices to nearly 320 teachers and counselors. Under state law, districts face a March 15 deadline to issue such notices, but have another two months to determine actual terminations. The board was giving itself flexibility -- while also sending a message to negotiators, especially those for the Modesto Teachers Association. In fact, a couple of trustees reminded the audience that the layoffs won't be so severe if the unions agree to unpaid furlough days, larger class sizes and other measures.
A parcel tax as a solution. Last week, school board members talked with varying degrees of enthusiasm about asking voters to approve a parcel tax to boost revenue. Some trustees were reluctant to spend $25,000 or more on a poll to gauge public support for a tax, so they suggested that the unions or others might chip in.
We have serious reservations about that, just as we did when the city of Modesto considered partnering with its fire and police unions on polling on a half-cent sales tax increase for public safety. The unions, as appropriate, want to protect the jobs and salaries of their members. The district, on the other hand, has similar but not identical interests. Sharing the cost of a consultant could set up unrealistic expectations. If members feel strongly about putting a parcel tax on the November ballot, they should spend district dollars on the poll.
That said, as much as people support education in general and their own community schools in particular, we doubt that a tax increase could win the necessary two-thirds approval, given the tough economy and a generally high level of citizen distrust of government. And for all the talk about the potential impact of school cuts, most families haven't yet experienced the worst of the pain.
If Modesto school board wants to pursue a parcel tax, it has much work to do to define the purpose, explain it to the public and, most important, convince voters that the district is operating as efficiently and effectively as possible and that every cent of taxpayer money will be used wisely.
We don't think there is sufficient time to accomplish all that by this fall.