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O.C. District May Enlarge Class Size

Santa Ana Unified is trying to cut $30 million as enrollment tapers off. Kindergarten classes and campus security could be affected.

October 18, 2003|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

With student enrollment leveling off after years of growth, the Santa Ana Unified School District is scrambling to cut expenses by nearly $30 million over the next three years.

Cost-saving measures under discussion include increasing the size of kindergarten classes, eliminating middle school interscholastic sports, reducing school security and giving teachers less paid time to prepare for the school year.

The district's plight has been of such concern that a state fiscal crisis management team has been reviewing the district's finances for the last month, at the request of the Orange County Department of Education.

School districts are required by state law to maintain balanced budgets. Those that do not are assigned trustees who make the necessary cuts unilaterally, Supt. Al Mijares said.

School board members say they are uncomfortable with the options.

"If we don't do this, someone else will," school board member Rob Richardson said at a recent board meeting. "So it behooves us to be serious. This is not a real rosy situation."

The deficit, the worst experienced by the district in the last decade, comes as school systems throughout the state are grappling with budget shortfalls. The situation in Santa Ana is exacerbated by the flattening enrollment, which largely determines the state funding the district receives.

The system's enrollment could rise by about 100 students or fall by as much as 500 under various estimates.

"Most districts are having to make very difficult decisions," said Wendy Margarita, Orange County assistant superintendent of business services. "Santa Ana is not alone. The only difference is that Santa Ana is losing enrollment."

The problems began last year when school districts faced $2.6 billion in cuts statewide. As a result, Santa Ana's school administrative departments cut their costs by 25%.

Now, with enrollment leveling off and no additional state money coming in, the district is taking harsher measures, Mijares said.

District enrollment had been increasing relatively consistently for years, but as the economy has soured, fewer people are moving to Santa Ana, school board President Rosemarie Avila said. The pace of growth began to slow about three years ago.

"We are used to growing about 2,000 students per year and that's not happening [anymore]," Avila said. With state budget cuts, "it's a double whammy."

Mijares said he wants the school board to identify cuts by Oct. 31 so he can give notices to employees who might be cut from the payroll.

The school district plans to provide the Orange County Department of Education with a three-year spending plan, including cuts, by Oct. 31.

To that end, the school board has met several times in recent weeks to discuss paring its $525-million budget, about half of which includes funds that are allocated to specific programs and cannot be touched.

The board is scheduled to vote on the plan Oct. 28.

Among the cuts under consideration:

* Increasing kindergarten class sizes to 30 students from 20 while adding a second part-time teacher in each class. The district would lose some state funding it receives for classes with fewer than 21 students, but the increased class sizes will eliminate the need for about 80 teachers and save about $2.8 million.

* Eliminating interschool sports at intermediate schools, saving about $60,000 in bus transportation costs.

* Renegotiating union contracts so employees who chose more expensive health insurance plans would contribute to the added cost.

* With union approval, cutting the five days that teachers are paid to prepare for the school year and instead offering them two unpaid leave days.

* Eliminating administrators at smaller schools, and shifting their work to administrators at other schools, for a saving of $400,000.

* Limiting overtime for school security officers and deploying them more sparingly, to save $900,000.

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