Grappling with a budget shortfall caused by declining enrollment, trustees of Orange County's largest school district voted Tuesday to close two schools in June as part of a plan to cut $15.6 million in spending for the next school year.
Closing Grant Elementary and Taft Intermediate schools will save the Santa Ana Unified School District $723,000 annually. But the bulk of the cuts were accomplished through accounting measures and administrative belt-tightening, including tapping new state funds earmarked for music instruction and grants for intramural sports, replacing on-site groundskeepers with roving crews, and cutting departmental budgets by 5%.
"We need to start being responsible and dealing with the problems the district faces," said Rob Richardson, president of the school board, after nearly five hours of discussion Tuesday night. "And part of that is making some tough decisions."
State funding for school districts is based on enrollment. More than half of the state's 1,054 school districts and more than three-quarters of Orange County's 27 districts are facing declining enrollment.
Santa Ana Unified saw strong population growth in the 1990s and is still building schools to relieve a backlog of overcrowded classrooms. But the district, which has a current enrollment of about 54,800, has lost about 6,000 students in four years. That includes a drop of 1,662 students during the current year that resulted in a loss of $9 million in state funds.
Trustees, who have cut $59 million in spending since 2004, expect enrollment to continue declining. The district is losing students because of declining birthrates and rising housing costs that have forced families to move inland for more affordable homes. Meanwhile, spending on special education, employee benefits and other costs continue to rise.
"After several consecutive years of making reductions, it's not getting any easier," Richardson said.
The most controversial cuts approved Tuesday night involved the closures of the two schools, a move that parents and teachers passionately protested.
The decision to close 297-student Grant, a collection of ramshackle portables in an immigrant neighborhood, will save $413,000 annually. The school opened in 2000 as a temporary home for students at overcrowded Roosevelt and Heninger elementary schools. But more classrooms have been built at Roosevelt and space is available at Heninger, so district officials decided to move the students to those schools.
Parents, most speaking through an interpreter, said the district ought to cut administrators instead of closing their neighborhood school, which is much smaller than a typical Santa Ana elementary, and, they argue, much safer.
"It is not just the closing of the school; you're affecting our children's safety," said Cristina Calderon. "I don't know if any of you have walked those streets and alleys you're asking our children to walk every day. We don't think it's right for our children to pay the consequence of your miscalculation of the budget."
District trustees said that if they granted the school a reprieve, as they did during budget cuts last year, it would inevitably return to the chopping block next year.
"I see no reason to keep that school there, as much as they enjoy it," said board member Audrey Yamagata-Noji.
Board member Jose Hernandez said that if the school's troubling academic performance had shown signs of improvement, he might have considered allowing the children to remain there.
"If I wouldn't send my children there, why am I OK with leaving the school open?" asked Hernandez, the father of two Santa Ana Unified students, before voting to close Grant.
District leaders also voted to eliminate the 7th and 8th grades at Taft and transfer the 6th-graders to the adjacent Taft Elementary School, a move that will save $310,000.
District staff said the 7th- and 8th-graders can transfer to MacArthur or McFadden intermediate schools. But trustee John Palacio, who opposed the closures, called that statement "disingenuous" since MacArthur, which has a lengthy waiting list, is a sought-after school where students are selected by lottery.
After trustees voted 3-2 to close Taft, distraught parent Debbie Fitzpatrick rose from her seat and screamed that she would remove her four children from district schools. Fitzpatrick has one child in 7th grade and three in elementary school. The 7th-grader would probably have to attend McFadden next year since he is No. 182 on the waiting list for MacArthur.
McFadden "is so overcrowded that kids can't make it to [class] on time," she said. "That is not putting education first, and that is not putting my child first."
In addition to the $15.6 million in cuts approved Tuesday, the district will eliminate 96 teaching positions, which corresponds with the decline in enrollment. The move will save $6 million, but keep the teacher-student ratio about the same.
Planned retirements and the use of short-term contracts have preempted layoffs.
But even with the cuts, the district will be spending about $11 million more than it takes in as revenue by tapping its reserves. And declining enrollment is expected to continue for the foreseeable future -- the district expects to lose an additional 1,681 students next year -- so Tuesday cuts will not be the last, officials said.