SAN MARCOS — More than 200 residents filled the North County Regional Education Center for an uncharacteristically crowded San Marcos Unified School District board meeting March 9.
On the agenda was a controversial proposal to remedy a nearly $8.5 million budget shortfall by cutting 50 probational teachers and increasing classroom size, largely in first and second grade classes. The board passed the measure reluctantly but unanimously.
For the first time in more than two decades, the district is not certain it can make it through three years on its current budget. Even if there are no more state funding cuts and no revenue drops, projections show a bankrupt district with reserves depleted by school year 2010-2011. The approved proposal cuts nearly $5 million annually from the budget.
Parents, students and district employees gave impassioned speeches punctuated by enthusiastic applause imploring the board to find an alternative to dismissing teachers.
“We know it’s the likely outcome that this evening’s vote will lead to many teachers getting pink slips,” San Elijo resident Jenny Orlando said. “That’s the safe thing to do — we think it’s the wrong thing to do.”
“A 30-to-1 ratio at this age is unmanageable both for the children and the teacher,” Kathleen Ortiz said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.” She and several other speakers indicated they would leave the district if class sizes increased and that they expected others will follow suit.
Many speakers offered alternatives for balancing the budget. Shirley Matthews called for a 5 to 10 percent pay cut for administrative employees and a 2 to 5 percent cut for teachers.
“The point of education is to educate kids, not to support jobs at the district office,” she said.
Steve Rooterman suggested the school consider increasing revenue by renting out campus space on the weekends and allowing advertising on campus.
“(There are a) lot of businesses that want our dollars,” he said. “It’s not the greatest thing in the world, but again, it’s better than getting rid of teachers.”
Point by point, the board members explained their justification for the decision.
“We have the lowest cost for administration in the county, and the second highest income going into the classroom,” Superintendent Kevin Holt said. “Most of our money is spent in the classroom.”
Holt pointed out that salary and retirement negotiations were handled privately and separately and therefore could not be discussed as a possible solution that night. He also said that encouraging current teachers to retire to avoid issuing pink slips for others would not balance the budget either.
“We could save everybody’s jobs, but it doesn’t do anything for the problem of the mid-year cuts this year or next year,” he said.
Holt and trustee David Horacek both strongly rejected using the district’s $15 million in reserve funds to balance the budget.
“If we use one-time moneys to solve long time problems, we’re doing something that isn’t very prudent,” Horacek said.
Forgone conclusion or not, it was visibly not an easy decision for the board to make.
“I feel like my heart weighs a hundred pounds,” board Vice President Beckie Garrett said.
“I thought last year’s budget process was terrible, but this one is much worse,” board President Sharon Jenkins said. “The fact of the matter is the district has not mismanaged your money. The state has mismanaged theirs.”
Holt stressed that the board’s decision was not the final word. The district would work with the community to find another way to solve the budget crisis, including entrepreneurial partnerships with businesses. If a solution is found, he said, the pink slips could be rescinded at any time before the beginning of school.
“Today is not the end,” Holt said. “It is the beginning.”
There will be a rally at North County Regional Education Center at 3:30 p.m. March 13 for more state educational funding. The board encourages the public to attend.