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Manteca Unified: A serious perception problem

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POSTED April 8, 2009 4:19 a.m.
Editor, Manteca Bulletin,
The Manteca Unified School District’s current budget crisis has proven to be as painful and difficult as originally feared. The District is rife with rumors, speculation, and e-mail circulations. All sides previously spoke of working together to solve the budget crisis. But the sad reality is that some classified members, who settled with the District are angry and frustrated that the teacher’s union won’t accept a 5% pay cut. Certain Budget Reduction Committee members are upset with Board Trustees for not examining Level III budget cut suggestions on a case-by-case basis, choosing instead to press for across-the-board pay cuts. Some newer teachers, fearing permanent lay-offs and willing to take the 5% cut, are pitted against tenured teachers who are reluctant to sacrifice hard-fought union gains for a pay cut they view as unnecessary, believing other options are available. All this divisiveness harms not only relationships between employee groups, employees themselves, and employees and District administrators and Board Trustees, it hurts our students.
Dennis Wyatt astutely pointed out that the District’s budget wranglings give the unfortunate appearance of gamesmanship. The negotiations process requires skill and finesse and shouldn’t degenerate into poker game tactics of calling each other’s bluff or, worse, devolve into some twisted chess game where students end up as pawns. Putting 20 psychologist positions on the chopping block at one board meeting, then 2 weeks later arbitrarily reducing the numbers to 9, makes it seem like the District is playing with people’s lives.

The superintendent and board need to dispel rumors and give clear explanations immediately. Letting all this negativity and animosity fester until the April 28 school board meeting is unwise. Ignoring the opportunity to publicly clear the air now will only result in an emotionally charged hellacious board meeting filled with teachers, parents, and students at a fever-pitch over threatened cuts of Advanced Placement classes, the JROTC program, elimination of K-3 class size reduction and the hijacking (although state-allowed) of G.A.T..E. and other categorical funding.

The Bulletin quoted Superintendent Messer as saying, “Administration is clear that our goal is to plan for and implement the best educational program we can, given the staffing formulas we must work within to meet the financial obligations of the district. We remain focused on delivering to all students a strong basic education in a culturally proficient and safe learning environment.” I’m hungry for knowledge, trying to understand the ramifications of the budget dilemma, but the Superintendent’s words offer only an appetizer instead of a satisfying, full-course meal. Providing a “basic education,” even a strong one, isn’t good enough for our district. “Cultural proficiency” means little if educational opportunities suffer.

The District must cut $24 million. Level I and II cuts total $13 million, including over $3 million in savings realized eliminating 3 work days for all employees. Teachers gave up over $1 million here alone. The District is currently exploring an early retirement incentive program whose financial savings have yet to be disclosed. If adopted, what are the projected savings? How much did the agreements with the 5 other bargaining units save the District? How much federal stimulus money will come to the District and how soon? After openly presenting and taking into account these factors, how much money still must be cut from the budget? The amount I’ve heard is $5 million. In the Sun Post, Superintendent Messer stated, “I don’t anticipate a lot (of layoffs) will be rescinded. I think the board will go through with the final layoff notices for the majority of that 261. If we got 5 percent (from the teachers), we would have rescinded 80-plus percent of the layoff notices.” How does this make sense? A previous writer explained that beginning teachers earn $55,000 (with benefits.) So, conservatively, laying off 261 teachers would save over $14.3 million, far exceeding $5 million. Without a pay cut, 91 teaching positions would need to be eliminated to reach $5 million. This is nowhere near a majority of 261 jobs. Even if teachers accepted a pay cut, 52 positions would still be removed. Basically, 1,300 teachers were asked to take a 5% pay cut to save 39 jobs. Does the District anticipate needing the additional teacher lay-offs to compensate if the May propositions fail, since the other bargaining groups have “no layofff” clauses in their agreements?
Eliminating K-3 class size reduction is another puzzler. According to the Budget Reduction Committee, this would affect 116 teachers and save the District $415,000, since over $7 million in costs is picked up by the state. If the state has pledged its continued support of CSR teacher salaries, abandoning the program doesn’t seem like the best use of District resources.

Our brightest high school students face the dire prospect of losing their A.P. classes. These classes give them an advantage, both for college admissions and preparation. How does the District expect them to put aside their anxiety over this uncertainty and to stay motivated and focused on performing their best on the state S.T.A.R. tests, which are essentially used as a report card of our District? The District has a real perception problem that needs to be addressed, the sooner the better.
Karen Pearsall
Manteca
April 5, 2009
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