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Why class-size reduction needs to be “eliminated’

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POSTED January 13, 2009 1:04 a.m.

It’s time to protect the franchise.

The Manteca Unified School District board tonight will receive a list of Level II cut recommendations from the 100-member budget reduction committee they formed featuring a cross-section of teachers, classified employees and administrators.

The goal is to cover a $14 million deficit projected for next school year.

If the board bites the bullet and adopts the Level II cuts as a package, it’ll leave a $630,000 hole that must be plugged with Level III cuts.

The Level III cuts are real gut wrenchers. They range from charging for home-to-school transportation and closing elementary school campuses to eliminating teaching positions.

There is no doubt they are going to have to adopt one or several Level III cuts in order to comply with state law and prevent the school district’s financial controls from being taken over by the state. That is what will happen if they don’t submit a balanced budget with mandated reserves.

The board would be wise before March to take one of the Level III cuts — class-size reduction — and treat it separately.

They need to “eliminate” class-size reduction with an asterisk. That asterisk is simply this: If the state eliminates funding for class-size reduction, Manteca Unified will eliminate it as well.

It would impact 116 kindergarten through third grade teachers. It would only save the district $415,000. The other $8 million to pay the 116 teachers is reimbursed by the state specifically for class-size reduction and wouldn’t help plug the district deficit.

The savings of $415,000, though, shouldn’t be counted as a way to bridge the deficit.

Such a move is extremely prudent. First, the district can notify the 116 teachers prior to mid-March that they may not have a job next school year.

Not only is that a state requirement but the courts have essentially embraced it as a previous practice.

Why do it, you ask, if the state cuts money for class-size reduction later in the budget process and before next school year starts? After all, the state would just exempt local districts from the March 15 deadline to notify teachers, right?

Wrong.

There are contractual issues involved. The courts are big on previous practice when it comes to labor and employment issues.

Manteca Unified — if it doesn’t take the precautionary step of “cutting” class-size reduction next year — could find itself not just holding the proverbial bag but teetering on bankruptcy. If that happens, it means state receivership.

No matter how you dice it, if the state yanks class-size reduction and Manteca Unified hasn’t notified impacted teachers by the required date, they would have an $8.4 million tab with no money to cover the payroll.

The temptation for the California Legislature is too great. Class-size reduction is a big chunk of money in the education budget. Given the fact the state has a $40 billion deficit and growing over the next 20 months, it is in jeopardy.

It is true that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is using” emergency powers” to promise suspending some requirements on how money is restricted to allow local districts to try to juggle money to put it in the most effective spots while cutting expenses. It is doubtful the state could do that with the notification of teachers. It is a major employment condition that the California Teachers Association helped put in place plus it makes a lot of sense from the standpoint of districts when it comes to structuring programs.

It isn’t a wise move for the school board to include class-size reduction in the cuts to bridge the $14 million budget deficit.

At the same time it is way too risky not to adopt it as a cut — outside of the $14 million — in case the state leaves local districts holding the tab for class-size reduction.

Yes, it is not a good thing to create anxiety for months when it comes to the future employment of 116 teachers. This however is a case of going with the lesser of two evils. If the board doesn’t cut class-size reduction with the understanding if the state funds their share of it that it wouldn’t actually be cut next year, then the blood is on their hands.

That blood is $8 million worth of red ink that will financially bleed the Manteca Unified School District to death. Why chance it?

No trustee in their right mind wants that when a simple precautionary move that protects the district in a worse-case scenario could avoid it from happening.

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