Valley schools face deepest budget cuts in years

School officials say they're dealing with the worst financial situation they've seen in years -- possibly decades -- as they prepare to chop millions from their budgets, lay off teachers, increase class sizes and cut salaries.

And unlike last year, when federal stimulus money helped buffer the blow, there is no financial cushion on the horizon.

"It's about as bad as I've seen in 40 years," says Larry Powell, Fresno County schools superintendent.

Marcus Johnson, Sanger Unified's superintendent, says he can sum up the budget situation in two words his students might utter: "It sucks."

In California, property-tax revenue is a major source of school funding, and it has plummeted with the decline in real estate values.

School officials say they don't know how the state budget will finally shake out, but they fear it will get worse.

So the cutting has begun.

Fresno Unified -- the Valley's largest school district, with about 73,000 students -- is looking at cutting $35 million out of its $990 million budget.

It will do so by increasing the size of K-3 and 9th-grade math and English classes, eliminating 181 of approximately 4,000 teaching positions and asking employees to take at least two furlough days. Across-the-board pay cuts also are likely.

Permanent teachers likely will not lose jobs, and nearly all of the cuts would occur through attrition and retirements, officials said. But some nonpermanent teachers likely will lose their jobs.

The cuts go deep in other districts as well: $28 million out of Clovis Unified's $280 million budget, $13 million out of Madera Unified's $170 million budget, and $10.5 million out of Central Unified's $140 million budget.

Central and Madera expect to lay off teachers and Clovis could ask employees to take a 2% pay cut. Visalia Unified already has released 37 temporary teachers and cut 30 administrative and support positions.

And Madera Unified -- which could cut up to 114 of about 1,000 positions -- is looking at closing Dixieland Elementary School.

Because salaries and benefits make up such a large part of school budgets, employees likely will be hit hard. Already, local school districts have delivered more than 340 notices to teachers and administrators that their jobs are on the line.

State law requires the notices, which are not considered formal layoff notices, be handed out by March 15. Classified employees -- generally considered support staff -- only require a 45-day layoff notice and still could receive them by the time districts finalize budgets in June.

John Arredondo, a physical education teacher at Washington Academic Middle School in Sanger, received notice Thursday that he could lose his job. He is a second-year teacher and still considered probationary; teachers don't achieve tenure until their third year.

In all, 116 Sanger employees received the notices, including 88 teachers.

Arredondo, his wife and three daughters -- ages 14, 11 and 8 -- just moved into a new home in Sanger. His wife works; if he loses his job, they can probably scrape by. He hopes to find substitute teaching stints in rural districts with difficulty attracting teachers.

Arredondo said he isn't bitter and understands the financial predicament facing Sanger Unified. "There was a lot of discussion leading up to it," he said.

"It's education, it's such a lion's share of the [state] budget and there's gonna be good times and bad times. But, you have a contract and you have to be a professional," he said.

Arredondo also hopes that planned talks between the Sanger teachers union and the district on a proposal to reduce salaries can save his and other teaching positions.

Johnson, Sanger's superintendent, said he feels terrible about letting any employees go, but he has little choice. His district has lost about $14 million out of its $75 million budget in average daily attendance funding from the state -- dropping from $6,200 per student to $4,800 this year.

"It's unconscionable what is happening in public education," he said of the state cuts. "And every year, what we are required to do by statute, by regulation, increases."

Many districts, including Fresno and Central, are increasing K-3 class sizes -- classes that schools had been encouraged to keep small to improve student learning. Failure to keep classes at 20 students or fewer results in less funding from the state. But the state has significantly lessened the financial penalty because of the strain districts are under, and now many districts are boosting the number of students per teacher -- which means teaching jobs will be cut.

Fresno Unified is increasing K-3 classes from 20 students to 24. The district is also increasing the number of students in 9th-grade math and English classes to 26 instead of 20. Sanger is increasing K-3 class sizes from 20 students to 25. Visalia is increasing K-2 classes up to 25 students.

The situation is dire, said Ruth Quinto, Fresno Unified's deputy superintendent. Fresno Unified anticipates having $68 million less in revenue over the next three years. So far, it has cut $16 million but still needs to chop another $19 million for next year's budget.

That is on top of cuts the district already has made in recent years. About $12 million was cut from the district's central office and about 20 vice principal positions were eliminated -- a savings of $3 million.

None of the decisions have been easy and the last thing the district wants is to lay off employees, Quinto said. To minimize layoffs, Fresno Unified has continued to offer early retirement incentives to its longtime teachers -- generally the highest paid. The latest offering has a March 16 deadline and includes a $700 bonus.

Greg Gadams, president of the Fresno Teachers Association, insists the district could find other ways to reduce the budget instead of targeting teachers. He said more than 400 teaching jobs have disappeared over the past few years. The administration hasn't been cut as severely as rank and file employees, he said.

"We've been told that they need to cut between 200 and 250 teachers," he said. Most of the jobs cut likely will be temporary and probationary teachers, he said.

Many districts are whittling down reserves to balance their budgets.

Last year Fresno Unified tapped reserves, which prevented even more layoffs. Central Unified's 2010-11 budget shortfall could have been greater -- as much as $8 million more -- but officials tapped into the district's reserves to fill some of the gap, said Michael Berg, superintendent of the 14,500-student district.

Central Unified's reserves are 5% of its budget -- above the 3% required by the state for most districts. That doesn't leave Central a lot of room, Berg said.

Even so, the district issued 113 notices of potential job eliminations this month. Many of the jobs are teaching positions because the district will increase K-3 class sizes up to 30 students. Berg said he hopes classes won't have to grow so large, "but we have to plan on a worst-case scenario," he said.

Berg said the job warning notices went "deep" but not everyone who received one may wind up without a job. Official layoff notices won't come for two months.

But several teachers who spoke to The Bee said they've been warned by officials in Central Unified not to make any major purchases because the 113 layoffs probably will happen.

The community needs to understand that schools are under enormous pressure today, said Powell, the county schools superintendent.

"They [districts] are going to get very creative in how to solve the problems," he said.

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