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Friday, February 22, 2008

Commentary: Okay we get it, Don't Cut Music

Yesterday I made a phone call to one of the school board members on an unrelated matter. She asked if I was calling to tell her not to cut the music program. I said no somewhat jokingly but quickly added, but you shouldn't cut the music program.

It was then that it was clear that the school board had been flooded with calls on the matter. The view was find us a way to save money or something else to cut.

The problem with cutting $4 million is that you are going to cut programs that are good, that are necessary, that people love. How do you not?

While it was refreshing to see cuts to upper administration in the form of Ginni Davis among other cuts backs in the district office, there are not enough employees there, not enough expenditure to account for much more than symbolic cuts.

A few comments.

I thought Richard Harris was out of line suggesting to teachers that they should give back part of their cost of living increase. Especially the way he in which he went about doing it. He is going to have to learn a bit more diplomatic, even when he raises valid points. I also thought he had some interesting ideas about how to save some money that the district ought to look into.

I spoke to someone about the climate coordinator position, they agreed that the position needed to be saved and seemed to believe there would probably a way to get categorical money to fund the position. There is simply too much progress that would be lost if they had to scrap this position. I understand we could say the same for fifty other positions, but this one is at least not hugely expensive.

One of the points of real concern is the shape of the district's budget even without declining enrollment and the ensuing statewide budget cuts. For the last perhaps four years, the district has been eating into their reserves. Now to clarify, this is not the state mandated 3% reserve, as a board member explained to me that money might as well not exist. But the district also maintains its own reserve.

What happened is that under the previous CBO, they used one-time monies to fund ongoing programs. Worse yet is that the district and board really were not told this was the case. Basically as it was explained to me, the district would get these one-time monies on a consistent basis so it would look like ongoing money but the same revenue source was not consistent. Over time some of these monies would decline or fall off which put the district into the red in these areas. The district began eating into the reserves the last few years, they have now figured out why that has occurred but it has left them around $1.5 million in the hole. More on this in the future.

As I said earlier, the amount of money we are talking about is painful. It is interesting that this discussion really did not occur during the campaign for Measure Q. I'm not sure how the public would have responded if they knew that even passing Measure Q they we would be looking at this much in budget cuts. Even without state cuts, the district is still looking at $2.5 million.

As I stated before, the governor's budget is appalling and it puts school districts across the state in dire straights. Similar levels of cuts are expected in other districts from what I have been told. A lot of these cuts will be reversed during the budget process but when you have a March 15 deadline, when the budget is probably not going to be signed until October, it just puts everyone in a bad position from a budget standpoint.

With softer cuts from the state and best prior fiscal management, we could have landed much softer. Particularly if we still had that reserve in place.

I think the district and schools need to look into perhaps non-traditional sources for revenue to help sponsor programs like music. I agreed with every said last night by the multitudes of students, teachers, and parents. It breaks my heart to watch students up there in tears some of them, asking the district to save the music program. The district should be proud with the level of articulateness of their students. This is a horrible thing to have happen.

So I agree with the board. I do not want to hear one program played off against another. One person's heartache and pain for another does not work for me here. I want to hear out-of-the-box solutions to cutting money but also finding some alternative revenue so that we can at least save some of the programs.

I also want to reiterate a point. The best thing about what the district is doing is that they have cut a key position from the upper administration. They may cut some salaries. They are going to reorganize some of those departments. The employees who remain will likely have more responsibilities. Whatever you want to say about the operations of DJUSD, on this score they have done the right thing.

There are fortunately not three votes it appears to increase administrator salaries as Board member Susan Lovenburg suggested. In my view, I have nothing against administrators, they work hard and they do good things most of them. But you do not raise salaries of upper management during times of budget cuts. You do not tie raises of administrators to those of teachers. That is unethical. So I applaud the district and the board for being more ethical and considerate than the UC Board of Regents.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting