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Weathering the storm

Local public schools are still operating in a harsh budgetary reality that began with deep cuts made three years ago. But while local educators say the short fiscal leash has led to tough choices and unavoidable dips in certain areas of service, they have tried to avoid serious impacts on the classroom experience.

The first and deepest of severe cuts in the San Diego City Schools budget came prior to the 2003-2004 school year. The district that year saw an enrollment drop of about 2,500 students. Since the district receives funding from the state of California based on how many students are enrolled, that drop cost the district about $17 million. The decline has continued.

“A lot of people are going to areas that are more affordable to live,” said Donna Trippi, principal at La Jolla Elementary School. “We’re losing students to Temecula, Arizona, Texas.”

Trippi said her school has not experienced a drop in enrollment. With 526 students, it slightly exceeded the district’s projections for this school year. But the overall decline throughout the district, which is the second-largest in California and now serves about 136,000 students at more than 200 educational facilities, continues to cause a drop in state funding.

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Coupled with rising operational costs, the district found itself facing a deficit of more than $60 million prior to the 2003-2004 school year. It responded by shaving its budget by about 7 percent to $1.1 billion. Last year, the budget was trimmed by an additional 2.5 percent.

At La Jolla High School, the cuts cost the school about $700,000 per school year, leaving its total budget around $9 million.

“That’s real money, real services and real people,” said La Jolla High School Principal Dana Shelburne.

Shelburne said the cuts forced La Jolla High to trim its office and counseling staffs and eliminate certain non-essential courses. He said his school has strived to keep the budget impacts from reaching students, but that the task is difficult.

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“We have tried to keep (the cuts) away from the classroom,” Shelburne said. “But a school is an organism that is contingent upon having all the components and parts operate properly.”

Shelburne said the school is relying on parent volunteers providing help free of charge to compensate for the position and a half that the school has lost in the clerical department.

“Without the parent volunteers, we wouldn’t have enough people to duplicate materials for classes or answer the phones,” Shelburne said. “A lot of schools have gone to a voicemail system that’s kind of a dark hole you fall into. You call in and just keep pushing buttons but never actually reach a person.”

The school has also lost a full-time library aid, leaving it with just one librarian. That person has to take time for restocking books, handling new orders and, of course, taking lunch breaks, so that means the library must be closed for one full day per week. The school spreads that closure time throughout the week.

Budgetary constraints have forced the school to trim some classes that are outside the core curriculum of required learning, Shelburne said. He said the school had to take the painful step of declaring its Japanese and classical Greek courses expendable.

“Other schools have cut the vocational courses, like auto shop and wood shop,” Shelburne said. “These are courses that help students become broad, comprehensive individuals.”

La Jolla High School is one of the luckier schools in the district in that it gets strong backing from the Foundation of La Jolla High School, a non-profit organization that raises money for the school through events such as Taste of La Jolla and Off the Wall. The foundation gave about $300,000 to the school last year.

About $25,000 of that money goes to fund two extra days per week of nurse staffing at the school.

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“The district gives us three days per week, which they think is sufficient,” Shelburne said. “They are grossly misinformed.”

La Jolla High is also relying on the foundation to provide funding for an additional counselor position, an additional ninth-grade English teacher that Shelburne said was necessary to keep class size at an acceptable level, textbooks and computer-equipped teaching stations.

“If California were serious about education,” Shelburne said, “those things would be part and parcel of what we do.”

Local schools did receive some good news from the state recently. Some time this year, schools will receive a $50-per-student grant from the state, and individual schools will have total freedom to decide how to use the money. Shelburne said he would push to have the money spent on beefing up the school’s library and counseling staffs, but since the grant is a one-time-only win “We’ll get those things back this year, Shelburne said, “then what do we do next year?”

Perhaps the most significant classroom impact of the strained budget climate of recent years is the difficulty schools are having hanging on to quality teachers. Shelburne said that during the tenure of former San Diego City Schools Superintendent Alan Bersin, the district failed to provide adequate pay increases for teachers.

“While the former superintendent was busy spending money on other things, other districts were giving 2 or 3 percent increases each year,” Shelburne said. “During the seven years Bersin was around, the gap grew to about 8 percent or more.”

“It’s causing a good deal of diffficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers,” Shelburne said, citing Poway, San Dieguito and Sweetwater as nearby school districts that can pay teachers better.

San Diego City Schools took a step with this year’s budget toward correcting the problem, giving a districtwide 3.5 percent raise to teachers, the first in several years. Of course, that money had to be moved away from other areas.

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At La Jolla Elementary, Principal Trippi said the changes caused her school to cut back on services for students struggling with math or English. In recent years, the school has employed one math aide per grade level for the third, fourth and fifth grades.

This year, the school only has one aide total. Its English learner support teacher, which formerly was available to help students twice a week, is now only available one day each week.

Trippi said the school used some of its discretionary funds - the money it receives from the district it is free to spend as it pleases - on an extra fifth-grade teacher in an effort to keep class sizes smaller. The district provides funding and a formula to keep classes at a level below 36 students.

As schools struggle to keep class sizes and course offerings at acceptable levels, most budget casualties come in the extra-support areas of education.

“The extra support for students that are struggling, the teachers are doing for free themselves,” Trippi said. “There is no one else to provide the extra support.”