2009-04-23 / Schools

Conejo School District starts slashing administrative positions

By Joann Groff joann@theacorn.com

Conejo Valley Unified School District school board members made their first concrete decision regarding imminent cuts to their budget. CVUSD needs to cut a little more than $5 million from its 2009-10 budget.

At a school board meeting Tuesday night, Dep. Superintendent Jeff Baarstad presented the board with a plan to reduce costs, beginning with the elimination of five district management positions, which will save the district $460,000.

The district office's discretionary budgets will also be cut by 20 percent, totaling $503,000.

Baarstad also proposed taking $2 million from the district's "rainy day fund." Conejo Unified has $4 million above the 3 percent required in reserves.

The remaining $2 million will come from hard cuts to be determined at the board's next meeting on May 5. Class sizes in kindergarten through third grade will likely be increased, as will math and English classes for eighth- through 10th-graders.

The plan was recommended by the newly formed budget committee, which includes Baarstad, principals, board members and representatives from teachers and classified employees unions.

The school board passed the cuts unanimously, 5-0. They will take effect July 1. Trustees also passed summer contingency cuts, which are being organized in case "more bad news comes this summer," Baarstad said.

If needed, an additional $3 million will come from making another $1 million in hard cuts and taking an additional $2 million from the reserves.

Baarstad said taking the remaining reserve money- aside from the 3 percent that must remain by law- is the "most controversial" aspect of the budget recommendations.

"Some thought we should keep it in," Baarstad said of the budget committee members. "Others said, 'Why sit on a reserve when people are being put out of work and programs for kids are being cut?'"

Trustees supported the decision.

"I think there's justification for it," board President Tim Stephens said. "If we didn't, we'd have to go to more layoffs and more cuts. I think it's a good decision."

During the meeting, trustee Peggy Buckles suggested the board take a 20 percent pay cut, and her colleagues agreed. Baarstad said the cuts would be a part of the adopted budget, and they would go into effect July 1.

"They need to know they're not alone in this," Stephens said of others in the district facing cutbacks. "They need to know the board is feeling the pain, too."

Superintendent Mario Contini encouraged people to look ahead.

"We're going to be gradually shifting away from thinking of the budget shortfalls into thinking more about our opportunities for the future," Contini said.

This week school district officials around the state have begun applying for newly released education stimulus monies, and Conejo Valley Unified School District doesn't intend to be left out.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced Saturday that California school districts and universities can immediately begin applying for $3.1 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars. California was the first state in the nation to be approved for part of the funds.

Schwarzenegger signed the application for the funding last week, opening the door for what could eventually amount to $4.9 billion to flow into California's schools. The first installment of the funding, $3.1 billion, is expected to break down to about $2.6 billion toward K-12 schools and $537 million toward the California State University and University of California systems.

CVUSD Superintendent Mario Contini said staff has already been working on bringing some of that money to local schools.

"We're going to try to get our share," Contini said. "We'll use it for its intended purposes—minimizing layoffs and minimizing the effects of budget cuts. We're going to go after what we can."

The district is expecting nearly $10 million over the next two years as a result of the Recovery Act, although much of the money is earmarked for specific uses, including Title I developments and construction. Contini warned that the estimates may change significantly as circumstances evolve.

The funds are dependent upon certain requirements, which include teacher effectiveness, college- and career-ready standards, assessments for students and effective interventions.

Districts cannot use the monies to pad "rainy day" accounts or reserve funds. The funds cannot be used for maintenance, athletic facilities, central office, vehicles or modernization, or renovation or repair that doesn't comply with with state law.

Jack O'Connell, California's superintendent of public instruction, pushed districts to act fast.

"The Obama administration has acted with tremendous efficiency in awarding these funds to California," O'Connell said.

"I now urge our local education agencies to quickly apply for these monies. Our goal is to get these funds out to our schools as soon as possible to protect jobs and help improve student achievement," he said.

Contini said he's read through "tons and tons" of documents, and he participated in a statewide conference call two weeks ago about the Recovery Act. The application, he said, is very simple.

The first round of money, about 67 percent of the funds, is expected to be received by districts next month. The second round will be released Sept. 30. The third round is called "The Race to the Top," a competitive grant program for states that make the most progress on reforms using the first two rounds of funds.

"When President Obama signed the Recovery Act, I pledged to quickly make sure California taps into every available dollar of federal funding and that we would put those dollars to work immediately and effectively," Schwarzenegger said. "I will continue to fight for every available dollar to Recovery Act funding and am committed to sending those dollars quickly out into our schools, into our communities and into our economy."

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