It was arguably the darkest hour in the 50-year history of the Manteca Unified School District.
The Great Recession triggered by a housing market overheated with liar loans sent revenues plummeting in 2008.
Jason Messer had just been tapped as the superintendent after serving a stint as the interim district leader. Major cutbacks were needed to keep the district from sinking financially.
Messer — taking his que from a game plan employed by Tracy Unified — assembled nearly 150 people to examine all aspects of the district operations from the classroom all the way up to the top. Their charge was to evaluate and prioritize programs and spending. They were grouped in tiers of importance so if revenue dropped below certain levels Messer could take the committee’s evaluations to the board allowing cuts to be made in a timely manner to assure minimum damage.
“In a way, it was a lot easier to make decisions on how to spend money back then,” Messer said. “That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of pain. People were losing jobs. Teachers lost houses. . . . But decisions on the best way to spend what money we had was easier as the committee (gave a clear picture) of priorities.”
There were three things out of the box Messer said would be protected — the ag program, JROTC, and band.
His rationale was simple. Other enrichment activities such as sports had strong constituencies that would make sure they were protected as much as possible. He noted ag, JROTC, and band reach students that sports often don’t.
“Band (had it been cut) would probably have come back,” Messer said. “But that wasn’t the case with JROTC. There is a long waiting list of schools that want a JROTC program. Once it (JROTC) was gone we were likely not to get it back.”
The priorities the committee listed weren’t recommendations per se. Instead they were descriptions of various spending and what was on the table, how it tied into educating students, and how much money could be saved.
A clear indication of what the district was up against can be gleaned from enrollment numbers and the district’s operating budget. In the 2008-2009 school year there were 23,077 students with a budget of $169.4 million. The current 2016-2017 school year with an enrollment of 23,900 students has a projected budget of $234.6 million. Today Manteca Unified has $66 million more to spend with only 823 more students. That’s 39 percent more funds with 3.6 percent more students.
The pain was felt everywhere.
Class size reduction went out the window. The district is now in the process of restoring reduced teacher-to-student ratios.
Home-to-school bus service was cutback by increasing walking distances. Campus-level administrators were cut including 11 elementary vice principals of which most have been restored.
Some cut were big as annex campuses for Lathrop and Sequoia elementary schools were closed. Some cuts were small as cell phones for administrators were cut.
Three assistant superintendent positions were eliminated. They have since been replaced with two deputy superintendents, positions that reflect a more streamlined approach to district operations.
Classroom supply budgets were cut to the bone to average $100 per class for a year.
“A lot of our teachers dug into their own pockets to buy supplies for their classrooms,” Messer said.
And while funding is being restored, Messer noted many teachers still spend money out of their own pocket for materials that enhance the education experience for their students.
Eight years after the financial crisis, Manteca Unified has either rethought how to do things making some cuts permanent or is still in the process of restoring programs.
The Acorn League — brought back this fall under a slightly different format — is one example.
Another is high school librarians that haven’t yet been funded again.
Messer credited all of the district’s employees from instructional aides and custodians to teachers and support staff for allowing the district to weather the financial crisis.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email firstname.lastname@example.org