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Ventura County

Budget Ax Hovers Over Schools

County educators try to plan for state spending cuts without knowing true numbers or timing.

February 10, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

Ventura County school districts are caught in a precarious waiting game. They know deep state budget cuts are coming, but they don't know when or just how bad they will be.

And the longer the wait, the more difficult it will be for schools to implement cuts midyear, officials said, even though most districts already have instituted hiring freezes and stopped all nonessential expenditures.

"Every day that goes by means a higher percentage has to get cut, since we're spending the money to run our schools," said Lowell Schultze, director of business services for the Simi Valley Unified School District, the county's largest.

Most large school systems in the county, including Simi Valley, would have to slash anywhere from $2 million to $5 million from their current-year budgets under sweeping cuts proposed by Gov. Gray Davis in December. Davis proposed cutting education funding by $1.5 billion in the middle of the year.

Those figures remain uncertain, however, because the governor and the Legislature have yet to agree on a plan that will help the state close a projected $34-billion budget gap over the next 17 months.

Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) said she and other Democrats have been pushing for a balanced approach to the deficit that would include cuts but also revenue increases -- such as temporarily hiking the state's vehicle license fee. The governor has said he would not support that fee increase, however.

"I wouldn't say we're back at the drawing board, but we still haven't come to a complete resolution," Jackson said. "We're working on it, and we'll get there; it's just a matter of time."

Meanwhile, schools are stuck, as evidenced in the scenario played out in the Santa Paula Elementary School District last week. School board members were poised to eliminate 20 staff positions and cut the hours of 55 others in an effort to close a potential $1.1-million budget gap, based on Davis' plan.

Although they approved the layoffs, board members decided at the last minute to delay implementing them after they heard about the Legislature's conflicting proposals.

"We're waiting at this point until we get a clearer picture from the state, which is not forthcoming," Santa Paula Supt. Luis Villegas said. "It's just awful."

In the meantime, district officials said they are focusing on the next school year and have no choice but to anticipate major slashes in state funding.

"Cuts are going to have to occur," said Santa Paula school board member Dan Robles. "If not this year, then next year."

In the Hueneme School District, officials are preparing an 18-month plan for at least $2.5 million in cuts in five phases, based on priorities established by a committee of administrators, teachers and parents.

Jeff Baarstad, Hueneme's business chief, said the first phase probably would involve shifting funding from other sources, eliminating vacant positions and cutting some jobs from the district office.

But other options on the table include enlarging class sizes, reducing bus service and jettisoning music teachers and school nurses.

"We're saying, 'Let's identify what needs to be done,' but we won't pull the trigger until we absolutely know we have to," Baarstad said.

Ventura Unified School District leaders have taken a similar approach, compiling a list of potential spending reductions as well as ideas to increase revenue.

Joe Richards, an assistant superintendent, said the district was faced with losing up to $5 million under Davis' plan.

But even if the cuts are not that deep this year, he said, they are sure to be so next year, so the district must be prepared.

"To me it is pretty clear the Legislature will not approve Gov. Davis' plan. The question is, will Davis approve the Legislature's plan?" Richards said. "We are faced with making adjustments both this year and next year, based on what we think might happen, but having no idea what will happen ultimately."

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