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Vista Unified approves $12M in budget cuts, more to come

VISTA — The Vista Unified School District Board of Education voted 4-1 to approve over $12 million in budget cuts at its Feb. meeting.

The meeting covered a long list of line items either placed on the chopping block or rearranged to different funding streams, as first proposed by Superintendent Linda Kimble.

Kimble, who previously came under fire for proposing to shutter Alta Vista High School before reneging on the proposition, has called for $15 million in budget cuts. The remaining $3 million remain open for deliberation at future meetings.

The Vista Unified School District had a total adopted budget of over $319.6 million for 2018-2019.

In a phone interview prior to the meeting, Kimble said she believes in the necessity of the budget cuts for the purpose of “right sizing” it in correlation with student enrollment numbers in the district.

She chalked it up, in part, to both decreasing birth rates and high enrollment levels in charter schools.

“Our revenue is entirely dependent on how many students are in our district,” Kimble said. “And so, when there’s an increase in student count we get more money and when there’s a decrease, we get less money … And so overall, because we’ve had a drop in both of those things, it’s really resulted in simply less revenue.”

Three items on the initial proposed cut list, however, ended up removed at the meeting.

Those included keeping the district-wide instructional assistant on the employee rolls, the replacement of one behavior specialist with two other behavior intervention positions working directly with students and a literacy coordinator position.

Initially, the line items up for proposed budget cuts Kimble presented were arranged in three different categories. First level of priority items voted on at the Feb. 21 meeting were described as “no impact to students.”

In hindsight, said Kimble, she regrets painting that category with such a broad brush.

“We tried to come up with a way to kind of express how close people were … I don’t know how you might phrase that differently, but … along the lines of thinking that this is the furthest from the classroom might be another way to phrase it,” said Kimble. “Closest to the classroom or closest to the students, further away in terms of their job actually directly impacting students. But they’re all important and it’s difficult in all cases.”

That same potential impact on students and classrooms sat the center of debate both among those who testified at the hearing, as well as among at least one board member, Rosemary Smithfield, a former Vista Unified teacher.

“I’m concerned when three of our committees were very strongly about some things that were not needed and do not affect the children that weren’t on the list,” Smithfield said at the meeting. “We need to make sure the kids have the programs they need, the people have the things they need to make them healthy and good learners. So that’s kind of where I would like to see us go.”

In the aftermath of the hearing, Smithfield told The Coast News that she believes the board did all it could not to harm students or classrooms.

“Many times when school districts find themselves with the awful task of cutting millions they make the easy cuts,” Smithfield said. “They will cut school support personnel, classroom supplies, they will ask for larger class sizes, less student day. They will pull transportation, nurses, counselors, etc. We stayed away from those cuts because we put the students first … I felt comfortable voting yes on the individual items from the package. In order to make these decisions we had to look at each item and understand the ripple effect its loss would bring.”

A Vista Unified parent who attended the meeting and who is critical of the cuts proposal, Shiloh Strawbridge, gave a business sector analogy in explaining her opposition.

“Do we invest, to capture more students, or do we cut, because we have fewer?” Strawbridge asked. “Do we act like Kmart, cutting stores and staff, or like Target, investing and using targeted strategies and growing by increasing their market share over the competition?”

Among some parent stakeholders in the school district, Kimble has come under fire for what they say is a trend of making unilateral cut proposals and an accompanying lack of transparency in the rationale behind them. In the pre-meeting interview, though, Kimble rebutted those critiques by saying the conversations have existed on an ongoing basis for several months.

“I don’t think that’s accurate. I think that people who have been really involved in the process would agree that there is a great deal of transparency,” Kimble said. “We’ve sent multiple letters to staff, we’ve sent multiple letters to parents. We’ve been talking about this at every meeting we’ve been working on this for.”

Kimble also cited the creation of the Superintendent Budget Advisory Committee “for the purpose of being open and transparent.”

“Now, people say they didn’t feel the cuts were transparent. Well, that’s collective work,” said Kimble. “And so what’s coming out in these finals months, you know, are a compilation of the work. You’d have to have attended probably all those meetings to feel like you’d have booked the whole picture because. It’s a group effort and these ideas are coming from many sources and so we are putting them together now.”

But that committee’s recommendations, says Rancho Buena Vista math teacher and Vista Unified parent Patrick Emaus — who participated on the Advisory Committee and is a vice president of the Vista Teachers Association — did not receive full uptake when it came time for an actual vote.

“The last task we completed on the committee was voting on ideas for places we could cut,” said Emaus, who pointed to those vote tallies now published online. “I was disappointed to see several of our major consensus items, like eliminating the assistant superintendent of innovation, was not presented to the board as a viable cut.”

The Vista Teachers Association has also critiqued Kimble for how she has kept them up to date on decisions. They say that has happened primarily via letters and updates sent via email, as opposed to give-and-take phone calls or in-person meetings. They expressed as much in a letter shared with The Coast News by Emaus.

The Vista Teachers Association wrote that it had received “more ‘update’ emails from our superintendent in the past couple of months than we have in her entire time as our superintendent. Previous to the past couple of months, there has been limited conversations, request for employee input, or explanation of future plans … other than cutting spending.”

Testifying at the meeting, Emaus also presented the board with his own proposed budget which lists many of the line items agreed upon during the Advisory Committee meetings. He said he remains hopeful that some of those items, in place of some of the line items which received a vote at the Feb. 21, could get into the budget.

The Vista Unified School District Board of Education will next convene on March 5 at the Temple Heights Elementary. The board has until May to submit its adopted budget to the San Diego County Superintendent of Schools for final approval.