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May 20, 2009 > Budget deficit means tough cuts for schools

Budget deficit means tough cuts for schools

By Miriam G. Mazliach

Concerns over the budget crisis and staff layoffs brought an overflow crowd to last week's (May 13) meeting of the Fremont Unified School District Board of Education.

Linda Dewlaney, parent of a Kennedy High School student, pleaded to save counselor positions. "I am donating four percent of my yearly salary to help save a counselor's job." Dewlaney handed her check to the clerk and challenged administrators and board members "to make a sacrifice and take a leap of faith." The audience recognized this was a significant financial sacrifice for a single mother with a son about to enter college.

"We are considering whom to throw overboard," responded Ivy Wu. The board member was visibly moved to tears. "It's very traumatic and tough for the Board. We need to lead by example and show kids the right behavior. I'm asking everyone to do the right thing."

Wu said she would give up 50 percent of her stipend and asked others to do the same. Fellow board member Lily Mei also agreed to donate her stipend back to the schools.

Adding to the momentum, Deepak Sabh, parent of students at Gomes and Hopkins, forcefully suggested "all of the school board and administrators should take a salary cut and then let's move on to the business of teaching."

Echoing the sentiments of many of those present, Board President Larry Sweeney explained the no-win situation of the school board. "We are required by law to have a balanced budget by June 30th. The state keeps taking more and more of our money away because our district is too high performing, compared with other schools. We hope we'll get money before school starts so we can reinstate staff or programs. We are devastated by these cuts."

"I feel the board is being as fiscally responsible as possible. Unfortunately, this choice will affect hundreds of students a day at each school," said Kirsten Marie, library information technology specialist at Washington High School. "Our computer lab would be closed 50 percent of the time. The libraries are being sacrificed to promote the parcel tax. How can we prepare kids for college with the libraries closed? School board members have gone out and visited the libraries. It breaks their hearts as well that we may have to close them."

"It's an awful situation," agreed Irvington Library Media Tech Jennifer Graves. "Our school averages over 600 students a day who use the library. Where will the students go? Who is going to purchase the materials, keep track of books and put them on the shelves?"

It was ironic that two resolutions adopted during the session recognized CSEA Week (classified school employees) and Day of the Teacher.

"We recognize the many hours you put in every day as we entrust our kids to you in the classroom. Teachers, next to parents are the most influential in their lives," noted board member Lara York.

Many in the audience were dressed in black as a show of support for librarians and counselors. However, the board voted 3-2 to cut librarian and media tech hours in half (Wu and Sweeney against). Counselors were also cut by a vote of 4-1 (Wu against).

In hopes of securing additional money to benefit schools, the board agreed to conduct a voter survey to test the support for a parcel tax.

A few days prior to the meeting, Superintendent Milt Werner conducted his monthly meeting to have an open discussion of concerns and questions from parents and the community.

Werner detailed the severity of the budget deficit, explaining several different scenarios as the deficit could range from $17-30 million. The total district budget is $270 million, so potentially losing $30 million is of great concern.

"Currently, Propositions 1A, 1B and 1C from the May 19th special election are failing," he explained. "Because of the deficit, we are looking at all possible revenue streams within the district, including a parcel tax, which could allow us to use the funds in programmatic areas."

Federal stimulus money, in the range of $8-$12 million, is anticipated from Title I/Special Education, directed at schools serving those students.

"We don't have leadership at the state level to help us equalize the funding with other school districts," Werner summed up. "We need strong bi-partisan leadership with integrity that will do the right thing with our money and what's best for our kids."

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