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Galt elementary school district faces possible shortfall of $2 million or more

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Posted: Monday, February 20, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 1:32 am, Mon Feb 20, 2012.

Galt Joint Union Elementary School District may be forced to close one or more campuses due to anticipated budget shortfalls.

Officials are also looking at increasing class sizes and teacher layoffs for the next school year.

Many of the decisions hinge on teacher union negotiations that began Tuesday, according to Superintendent Karen Schauer.

The district is facing between a $2 million and $4 million budget shortfall in 2012-13, and is reliant on voters passing a tax initiative in November.

“Without the tax initiative and continued union support, it is difficult to avoid school closures and remain fiscally solvent with a 3-percent reserve,” Schauer said, adding that the district is already using a low-interest loan to make up for late state payments.

But school board president John Gordon was more emphatic.

“We can’t be fooled in believing that the governor’s tax initiative will be the savior,” he said. “Most school districts will still have to make significant cuts regardless of the outcome. However, the depth of cuts will prove devastating to public schools if the initiative fails.”

After more than four years of cuts, restructuring, using budget reserves and bargaining efforts with unions, Schauer said the district continues to face uncertain state budget conditions.

The district is working on developing contingency plans to address budget cuts, but the timeline is short as preliminary lay-off notices go out next month.

“It is critical to work swiftly with our unions to preserve people power for our students and bring certainty that is locally possible for employees and our families,” Schauer said in a districtwide email last week. “Negotiation efforts were successful last year, but it took many bargaining sessions over time to develop agreements with restoration language.”

Other cuts could include administrative personnel, band, counselors, libraries, instructional support with coaches and instructional assistants, class-size increases at the fourththrough eighth-grade levels, and transportation, according to Schauer.

Susan Petersen, who teaches third grade at River Oaks Elementary School, says state politicians do not see the benefits of public education and the state’s budget issues have put every school district in a tail-spin.

“I feel sad for our children’s educational future,” she said. “They deserve better than this.”

Gordon, too, is disheartened by the annual cycle of contemplating more cuts. It is his fourth year on the school board.

“When you see the hard work of our employees and students continually pay off ... and the response from the Legislature every year is ‘OK, now do more with less,’ it’s debilitating. School districts have nearly exhausted every option,” Gordon said.

The district found itself in a similar position last spring, and with the uncertainty of the state’s financial situation, the board approved two budgets for the current school year. Still, the school board voted to lay off 51 teachers, eliminate key administrative positions and cut the school year by four days, but campus closures were averted through successful union bargaining.

Petersen said the shorter year impacts not only the academic environment, as students will not have as much time to learn the intended curriculum, but affects her personally, because her job is about building relationships with students.

“If a student does not understand simply because he or she needed more time, that affects you,” she said. “I tend to feel rushed to get it all in, and that can physically wear you down.”

Gordon said the continual practice of cutting programs and services affects morale as employees receive pink slips, pay cuts and furloughs. He feels it also threatens the achievement progress the district is making with its students.

When it comes to possibly closing a school, Peterson said she is torn as such action affects not only teachers losing their jobs, but students being reassigned and disconnected to their school.

“However, if it helps us fiscally manage, it might be the best of all ideas,” she said.

Mindi Rold has two children in first grade and a third-grader. She is against the idea of closing schools, she said, since there are many variables that go into determining which school to shutter, and families could be split up.

If this happens, Rold said she sees more children being pulled out of public school and enrolled in charters.

Instead, she would like to see cuts from the top down, and not from the classroom up.

“If there is a pay cut, it should be across the board, not just aimed at teachers,” Rold said. She added that perhaps outside consultants or curriculum coaches should be cut.

Rold said other possibilities could include charging students to ride the bus, encouraging parents to serve voluntarily in specific areas to cut costs at the school level, and combining positions at the administrative level.

Schauer said the district’s next step is working with both the teachers’ union and classified unions this month to determine what agreements can be reached to reduce budget cuts.

She added that the feedback that the district received last year was that the community wants all of the schools to remain open, as well as retain reduced class sizes, libraries, counselors and band.

“We cannot afford to keep everything with the current budget information that we have,” Schauer said, adding that the district is running out of ways to cut the budget and still serve students safely and effectively without closing schools.

“We need to work together, have the state tax initiative pass and achieve successful bargaining efforts to sustain our work for our students,” Schauer said. “We still are looking at cutting programs and positions whether we close schools or not, due to the magnitude of total cuts we need to make to reach cuts of approximately $4 million in the worst case scenario.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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