CITY HALL — The fallout from the defeat of five major budget propositions from the special election became apparent on Thursday when district officials outlined the first in a series of spending cuts expected for the upcoming school year.
Included in the initial round, which was presented to the Board of Education during its meeting, are cuts to the contracted services and special education budgets, which will lose about $300,000 and $700,000, respectively, and larger class sizes, which is expected to yield a savings of about $1.9 million.
The proposed reductions will be approved at the next board meeting, scheduled for June 4.
Voters last Tuesday overwhelming rejected propositions 1A-1E, which school officials said were necessary for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to avoid an extra $6.8 million revenue reduction on top of the $10-$12 million it is already expected to lose over the next 18 months due to state funding cuts.
Perhaps the most concerning to parents is the reduction of one house at Santa Monica High School, which has successfully operated its small learning communities concept through the five-year-old house system.
The Samohi organization is structured so that all students are assigned to one of six houses, each of which has a principal, advisors, outreach specialists and other staff. The houses are located in different buildings and are designed to allow students to take a full schedule of courses in the same place, though many do have classes all over campus.
District staff looked at various ways of altering the house system to save money, ultimately settling on cutting one house, which would result in the loss of one house principal, two advisors, one outreach specialist, an administrative assistant, senior office specialist, security officer, half a librarian and 1.2 teacher leaders, all for a savings of about $700,000. The change is expected to increase the student to adviser ratio from 241-to-1 to 289-to-1.
Superintendent Tim Cuneo pointed out that the enrollment at the high school has decreased since the house system began, going from more than 3,400 students in the 2003-04 school year to approximately 2,900 this year, a drop of about 14.7 percent.
“We are prepared to work with the principals and administrative staff at the schools to make sure there is a smooth transition,” Cuneo said.
Samohi Principal Hugo Pedroza said that that while the house proposal might not be the most popular, he is ready to back it and work with his teachers to ensure that change causes as little disruption as possible.
“I urged my folks at Samohi to make sure that we do not allow this to break our unity as an entity … because there is a danger for that to happen,” he said.
Several parents expressed concerns about the impact that the reduction would have on students who are the most underserved in the community, including those who come from Title 1 elementary and middle schools that are on the free and reduced lunch program.
Laurie Lieberman, a parent at Samohi, said that the bigger the student population is at each school, the further the system gets from its intended purpose of creating small learning communities.
“You’ve got to remember that small really is beautiful in this case,” she said. “It’s in fact the primary reason that many people send their kids to private schools.”
The proposal received support from Dona Davoodi, the Samohi student body president, who said the board should place emphasis on quality rather than quantity.
“Keep our school’s quality intact by keeping the quality faculty members whose main focus is to be directly involved with the students rather than save all of the houses and thus letting go of the fundamental faculty members,” she said.
While the proposal generally received support from the school board, Maria Leon-Vazquez said that district staff should find more ways to save money and look at all of the schools, including those in Malibu.
“Let’s look at the whole district,” she said.
All schools will be seeing some budgetary impact through the increase in class sizes. All classes in kindergarten through third grade will grow by three students, while secondary school classes will increase from a student-to-teacher staffing ratio of 31-to-1 to 32-to-1. The exception is John Adams Middle School, which will go from a student-to-teacher ratio of 29-to-1 to 30-to-1.
McKinley and John Muir Elementary Schools will see a decrease in their fourth and fifth grade classes by five students, while the staffing ratio will remain the same in those grade levels for Will Rogers Elementary and Edison Language Academy. All four are Title 1 schools.
Opposition to special ed cuts
It was about a month ago that an ad hoc committee of parents and teachers, charged with the task of reviewing old studies on special education, came up with a set of recommendations to improve the troubled program, measures that would require the district to spend quite a bit of money.
That was what several parents concerned about the proposal to cut $700,000 from the special education budget pointed out to school board members, asking that several key recommendations from the Special Education Collaborative Working Group, including the hiring of integration director, be adopted.
Officials said the district has over the past several years overbudgeted special education and that aligning the budget with historical spending for the department would yield a savings of about $700,000.
But some parents said they don’t understand how the district arrived at the $700,000 figure, adding that special education finances, especially when the department was run by former Deputy Superintendent Tim Walker, has been a “black box.”
The Special Education District Advisory Committee recently formed a subcommittee focused on examining the finances of the troubled department. Along with the Financial Oversight Committee, the two groups requested that district officials provide a detailed analysis supporting the district’s conclusion that it could save approximately $700,000 by aligning the budget with historical expenditures for special education.
The groups also asked that the district back its claim that aligning the budget with historical spending would also yield savings in legal costs and instructional assistants given that data provided in the 2008 audit on special education and other district financial documents contradict it.
“Special education has been donating a minimum of $700,000 a year for the past three years to the district,” Lee Jones, a member of the Special Education District Advisory Committee, said. “The special education community had no knowledge of this since we were being told there was no money — none — to build internal capacity that would allow the district to provide necessary instruction for students with learning disabilities.”