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Santa Ana schools plan cuts

The district may slash $17 million. Enrollment drops have many coastal districts looking for ways to save. Inland, student numbers soar.

November 14, 2007|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Santa Ana's school district has proposed $17 million in budget cuts this week because of declining enrollment, another measure of the dwindling student population in Southern California coastal counties.

In the last four years, Los Angeles County has reported a 3.6% decline in pupils, Orange County has seen a 1.6% drop, and San Diego County has experienced a 1.2% falloff. Combined, the counties have lost more than 77,000 students during this time -- along with hundreds of millions of dollars tied to enrollment figures.

School officials blame the decrease on lower birthrates and rising housing costs that have forced families to move inland for more affordable homes. Riverside and San Bernardino counties have added nearly 84,000 students in the last four years.

"If you were to look at a map of Southern California, you would see that just about all the counties that touch that ocean are experiencing declining enrollment in 50% of the districts," said Wendy Benkert, an assistant superintendent for the Orange County Department of Education. "We don't know how long this [trend] will last."

Since 2002, every coastal county in California except Marin has experienced a drop in students.

For five years running, the Los Angeles Unified School District also has suffered a declining enrollment. Compared with last school year, 20,285 fewer students enrolled in the district this fall, dropping the overall student body to 653,215 -- a number that does not include the roughly 41,000 students in the independent charter school movement.

The drop in enrollment, in part, has led this year to Supt. David L. Brewer's slashing about $100 million from the district's $7.2-billion general fund. Brewer ordered every department in the mammoth bureaucracy to draw up plans to reduce costs by 5%, 10%, 15% and 20%. In the end, some cutbacks reached as high as 18%.

About 500 positions from L.A. Unified's central office were eliminated. Several cuts also raised the ire of parents and teachers. A plan to save millions of dollars in salaries by taking away teaching positions in the middle of the year from schools that continue to hemorrhage students was met with anger. Dramatic cuts to the translation unit in the heavily immigrant district also were unwelcome, as was the elimination of small but beloved programs, such as a series of concerts for advanced student musicians.

In Orange County, 21 of the 27 districts had an enrollment decline last year. The Santa Ana Unified School District, facing its fifth straight year of enrollment drops, will have carved nearly $100 million from its budget since 2004 after the latest cuts are completed. This fall, Orange County's largest school district enrolled 1,146 fewer students than last year, lowering its total to 53,700 children -- down 9% from five years ago.

The decline in Santa Ana this school year is less than last, when the district was forced to cut $29 million, officials said.

"What's happening in Santa Ana is happening across the county," said district spokeswoman Angela Burrell. "In fact, it's happening statewide. What we are looking at is people moving to more affordable areas to live. We are not unique at all."

The district is considering cutting $17 million from its $500-million annual budget by eliminating administrative positions, slashing funding of high school sports by 5%, leaving vacant positions unfilled and reducing the use of consultants, security guards, custodians and gardeners. The district also may eliminate some portable classrooms, institute a four-day workweek in the summer, reduce assistant principal staffing at intermediate and high schools, and increase fourth- and fifth-grade class sizes by one.

Although no decision has been made, "ultimately, the kids will lose. You have larger classes and less materials," said John Palacio, a school board member.

District spokeswoman Burrell said the cuts proposed by administrators would be made "as far away from the classrooms as possible." In past years, Santa Ana trustees cut teaching positions and closed two schools.

In this school year, the Santa Ana district dropped year-round schooling because student enrollment numbers declined.

Therese Mims, who is among 10 parents on a 63-member committee that proposed the budget cuts, said most parents were unaware of the imminent reductions. She said budget cuts would affect the students, citing one proposal that calls for a custodian to clean a school every three days.

"You are cutting these schools down to nothing, and it makes it hard for them to operate," she said.

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jennifer.delson@latimes.com

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