The Lone Pine Unified School District Board of Trustees took the first step in slicing more than $678,256 from its 2012-13 budget at Wednesday’s board meeting.
Given the “downward spiral in school funding over the last years,” as Superintendent Larry Todd described it at the district’s Town Meeting, Monday, the board also approved the effort to continue paring away in the hopes of cutting an additional $30,000-$60,000 before the final budget is passed.
For Lone Pine, that downward spiral started with an $82,000 cut in 2009-10, a deficit that has roughly doubled each year since. Todd anticipates no reprieve from the trend. The current state budget proposal and the proposed Weighted Formula for school funding are all dangling over Owens Valley schools like Damocles’ sword. Proposed tax initiatives may help school budgets, but in a political climate that is not tax-increase-friendly, passage of the initiatives is not a given.
The specific action taken by the board was to officially reduce one position from a full-time status to 0.6, or from five periods to two. The board anticipated a reduction of six full-time teaching positions at the beginning of the budget process, but the retirement of five made it possible to dodge that bullet.
In prior action, the board laid off the equivalent of two -and-a-half classified, or non-teaching, positions.
The reduction in salaries and benefits amounted to $423,000. To that cut, there were additional cuts that did not impact the classroom, resulting in a budget $46,934 to the plus side. At the Town Meeting, Todd recommended additional cuts, totaling $45,000. “Every time we’ve worked to the worst case, that’s where we’ve ended up,” he said.
Those considerations included eliminating counselors, utility reductions, elimination of the ski program and changes to the current transportation program.
The district currently has reserves of just less than $1.2 million, but Todd and the board was reluctant to continually tap into those reserves. “The state isn’t always on time with payments to districts,” Todd said, adding that Lone Pine was unique in that the majority of their property tax income comes from one source, Coso Geothermal, who also does not pay the tax on time. The reserves can be used for these shortfalls.
One issue under discussion at the Town Meeting was the filling of the Lo/Inyo Elementary principal vacancy. Jeff Putman, the teachers’ union representative, suggested Lo-Inyo teachers with administrative credentials could fill the principal’s functions. Both Todd and board President Matt Kingsley pointed out that the issue was more critical because of the elementary school’s Program Improvement status.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion on this point,” said Kingsley. “This is not the time to take risks while we’re working our way out of Program Improvement. We need strong leadership.”
Lo-Inyo went into Program Improvement in the 2003-04 school year but was able to move out the next year. Then, in 2009-10, test scores fell below the standards set by the California Office of Education. “The state requires a 10 percent improvement every year,” Todd explained in a phone interview. California’s interpretation of the federal No Child Left Behind legislation requires that every student in the state public school system test in the upper 40 percent by 2114. While test scores went up, nearly across the board, Lo-Inyo missed moving out of the Program Improvement status by a small percentage.
“There are a series of stages over five years,” Todd explained, and the bar gets higher at each stage. Failure to move out of Program Improvement can end in privatization of the school or worse.
Lo-Inyo isn’t unique. According to Todd, 2,000 districts in the state are in Program Improvement.
The board has considered reducing administrators, just not the elementary school position. “We worked with Owens Valley to share administrators,” board member Nancy Lamar-Overbey said. The efforts fell through when Owens Valley Superintendent Joel Hampton’s contract was signed for an additional two years.