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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Commentary: Painful Times Ahead for DJUSD

This is what we have come to--on Thursday night, the Davis School District, faced with a huge budget cut, put on the table the notion of rolling back teacher salaries by 2 percent. The motion was made by Richard Harris and seconded by Susan Lovenberg.

If the motion had been approved, Mr. Harris would then have asked administrative staff to take a similar temporary pay cut.

The idea purportedly came from one of the PTA presidents, who wondered how many teaching positions could be saved if teachers would agree to forgo their salary increases until after the state budget approval, which is expected to happen sometime in the late summer or early fall.

Richard Harris operated under the belief that up to $1 million would be added to the budget from the state once the agreement is actually reached but by that point it would be too late to do much with the current budget--unless you are dealing with salaries that could be the first thing adjusted once a budget passes.

There is a logic to Richard Harris' proposal, but the rest of the board Tim Taylor, Gina Daleiden, and Sheila had serious doubts.

One problem was that the idea came forward from a board member rather than either the Davis Teachers Association or the California School Employees Association. In fact, the president of DTA, Tim Paulson told the board that a 1 percent salary rollback had been proposed at a recent meeting but failed without so much as a second. CSEA also had problems with a rollback.

Tim Taylor I think clinched it in my mind:
"If we pass this motion, we're saying (to employees) 'Why don't you step up to this 2 percent?' We're not asking this of doctors and lawyers. ... We're asking this of teachers and other staff who we'll all admit are not paid enough already."
Sheila Allen examined whether there was even time to pursue such negotiations, but Kevin French indicated that there was not.

For Sheila Allen it became an issue of timing:
"I don't think we can get the information out to the membership to put the money back into the budget in time so that we can use it. I can't support this motion tonight."
In the end, the correct answer probably came from both Sheila Allen and Gina Daleiden--from a practical standpoint, it is not clear that they could have gained sufficient buy-in from the teachers in the amount of time available to contemplate such a decision.

The choices here are quite horrific, at this point in time, it is really not a realistic option. On a philosophical level, I think I have to side with Tim Taylor, himself a lawyer. Asking people who are not paid enough to begin with, to take a pay cut, does not seem a responsible course of action. But then again, cutting positions is not a comforting action either.

In the meantime, the board also delayed the decision on additional pink slips to classified employees, that decision will be made on April 28, 2008 at the very earliest.

It seems to me that the district has taken a lot of options off the table, but at the same time, it seems pretty clear that they still have to make these deep cuts. None of these cuts are going to painless. They already decided that they could not close a school on this kind of notice, which is probably the right decision but it nevertheless puts another $500,000 in cuts back into play.

Hence we have the proposal to cut classified positions. However, now six elementary school principals warn that serious problems will result if school secretaries' hours are reduced.

Here's what I have come to the conclusion about watching this process. There has been perennial speculation out there that public schools are run inefficiently, that they waste huge amounts of money. And yet, when push comes to shove and they actually have to make deep and real cuts, they are not able to do it painlessly. To me that's an indication that there is not nearly as much waste in a school district as people think.

Perhaps there were too many administrators, but even cutting some did not dent the budget and the amount of work performed by the administration, I think is severely underestimated. The additional workload with reduced staff will have consequences.

On a school site itself, who are you going to cut? Teachers? Secretaries? Principals? Other support staff? Each of those carries with it, vital tasks and duties.

When we are talking about cutting salaries for professionals who -most in society acknowledge- get paid too little to begin with, you suddenly realize that the amount of waste in public schools is not nearly what most think it is. We can cut painlessly perhaps on the margins, but once we get into real cuts, there is nothing but pain to go around and that's why these decisions are so difficult and why the process is taking so long. In the end, we are going to have to make decisions and do things that really hurt--that is the only way to avoid even worse consequences of losing control of the operations of our district.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting