School District Braced For More Budget Cuts

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With the state experiencing a dramatic budget shortfall, local schools and city departments are heeding Sacramento's warnings and bracing themselves for potential further cuts to keep the state solvent.

Despite already struggling to absorb nearly flat funding or cuts from the recently signed state budget, the Berkeley Unified School District and the city of Berkeley may experience more budget cuts in the months to come.

At a minimum, the state is facing a $3 billion budget shortfall overall, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to address in a special legislative session on Nov. 5, said H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for the California Department of Finance.

Though the governor and state legislators have not yet made a firm decision on how to address the deficit, local entities are anticipating mid-year cuts in order to help get California out of the red.

Berkeley Unified School District is preparing for further cuts by January, which could add up to a loss of as much as a few million dollars, said district spokesperson Mark Coplan.

In the education system, budget plans are generally made months before a final state budget is decided upon, often leading to budget cuts in anticipation of a tight financial situation, said Christina Faulkner, the district director of curriculum and instruction.

Last year, district officials faced a projected 6.5 percent state budget cut, amounting to roughly $230,000, and budgeted for the decrease by cutting enrichment funds and some support programs, Faulkner said.

"All our sites have had to cut back and we have seen (the cuts) make a real difference," she said. "Obviously we try to keep it out of the classroom as much as possible, but if we need to save in one area, we have to cut from another, like enrichment."

The areas that have experienced decreased funding range from programs for gifted students and for English-learners to reduced amounts of art supplies and instructional materials, she said.

The possibility of large mid-year cuts could be difficult for the district to manage on top of its nearly flat funding, Coplan said.

"Mid-year cuts are tough because you're really limited in what you can do," he said. "Kids are already in class ... and cutting certificated staff is not an option."

By state law, certificated teaching positions that are posed for layoff are required to be notified by March 15 of the prior year, he said.

Officials expressed uncertainty about possible cuts, but said that because no cuts have yet been sustained, the district can allocate funds to sites if it does not experience a budget cut.

"We've held on to the funds received when the cuts ... were restored and we will give those funds out if they're not cut," said Bill Huyett, the district's superintendent.

The city of Berkeley has been further affected by the budget crisis through cuts in state and local funding. In the recent budget cycle, $1.1 million was cut from Berkeley's public and mental health departments and around $487,000 was cut from other programs, said city spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross.

Though the city anticipated cuts for this year, officials remain uncertain about what's next as legislators reconvene for the special session.

"We anticipated cuts two years ago, but the economic downturn is a lot more widespread and deeper than anybody anticipated," Clunies-Ross said. "I don't think anybody knows what to expect."


Kelly Fitzpatrick covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected]

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