Education Special: Making Do With Less
This report and others in this series were made possible by The Wallace Foundation, The Principal Story project, and the Knowledge Center.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
As part of our special series on education, These Days looks at how the state's massive budget crisis has impacted education and local schools.
Jennifer Walters, superintendent of Escondido Union School District.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (President of the United States): But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, the best schools in the world, and none of it will make a difference, none of it will matter, unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities, unless you show up to those schools, unless you pay attention to those teachers, unless you listen to your parents and grandparents and other adults and put in the hard work it takes to succeed. And that's what I want to focus on today, the responsibility each of you has for your education.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): That, of course, an excerpt from President Barack Obama's speech last week to the nation's school children welcoming them back to school and urging them to study hard and work hard. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to a buzzer right now from the campus of Lincoln High School with a special These Days broadcast from Lincoln High School. We're right outside the library of this large, almost brand new campus sprawling on 28 acres in southeast San Diego. Now during the first hour of this broadcast, we talked about the state-of-the art structure of Lincoln High and the focus on using all available resources to encourage student success. Well, this hour, we can't ignore the fact that the available resources for education in California have suffered a considerable setback this year and last. The state education budget has taken the biggest hit in years, about $12 billion. That cutback has trickled down to local school districts and now there are larger class sizes, in some districts teachers have lost their jobs, and the support personnel to help teachers and students have been cut back to the bone. It's certainly not impossible to give kids a great education under these circumstances, but it does make it more challenging. To get a better idea of how different school districts across the county are dealing with the education budget cutbacks, I'd like to welcome my guests. Jesus Gandara is superintendent for Sweetwater Union High School District. Dr. Gandara, welcome to These Days.
DR. JESUS GANDARA (Superintendent, Sweetwater Union High School District): Good morning.
CAVANAUGH: Jennifer Walters is superintendent of Escondido Union School District. Jennifer, welcome.
JENNIFER WALTERS (Superintendent, Escondido Union School District): The same to you.
CAVANAUGH: And welcome back Mel Collins. He's executive principal of Lincoln High School.
MEL COLLINS (Executive Principal, Lincoln High School): Good morning, again, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And we invite our audience to join the conversation. Now that your kids are back in school, tell us, how have budget cuts affected the schools in your neighborhood? Are you concerned about the quality of education for kids today? Call us with your questions and comments, 1-888-895-5727. Well, as the period changes again here at Lincoln on the Lincoln High campus and kids are moving back and forth to the different buildings to attend classes, I wonder, Dr. Gandara, if you would start us off by telling us a little bit about the Sweetwater Union High School District and how many students are in the district?
DR. GANDARA: We have approximately 43,000, 7th through 12th grade students, 27,000 adult ed students with their own principals, their own administration, their own facilities. Our district borders really south San Diego all the way to the Tijuana bridge with approximately 25 campuses.
CAVANAUGH: 25 campuses.
DR. GANDARA: Yes.
CAVANAUGH: That was going to be my next question. What's the make-up of the student population?
DR. GANDARA: Predominantly Hispanic, about 73% Hispanic, about 11% Caucasian, another 11% Asian, Filipino, and the remainder is Latin.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, I wonder, what is Sweetwater's annual budget but more I'm wondering how much less did you get from the state this year because of budget cuts?
DR. GANDARA: Our annual operating budget is about three hundred and – I'm sorry, $446 million.
DR. GANDARA: This year, just this year alone, we face a $38.8 million funding reduction. In the last – That's more than the last six years combined. And since I became superintendent four years ago, we've reduced the budget by almost $20 million.
CAVANAUGH: I think that bell was going off in an exclamation point to what you just said…
DR. GANDARA: That's fine.
CAVANAUGH: …Dr. Gandara.
DR. GANDARA: We have a $446 million budget. This year, the Sweetwater School District faced a $38.8 million funding reduction. That's more than the last six years combined.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, yeah.
DR. GANDARA: And once I became superintendent four years ago, we have reduced the budget by almost $20 million.
CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. Well, Jennifer, you are the superintendent for the Escondido Union School District. Tell us a little bit about that district. How many students and how many schools?
WALTERS: Well, Escondido Union is an elementary school district, pre-school through 8th grade. We have about 18,500 students on 23 campuses, and it's pretty much contiguous with the city of Escondido, which, of course, is north of Poway, just east of San Marcos, and west of Ramona, in those areas. We have a similar sad story to tell in Escondido Union in that we have a – we now have $147 million budget and in the last two years, since 2007-08, we have reduced our budget $19.2 million dollars. That's just in revenue limit, the money that we get for students attending school every day. And then there's additional special programmatic funding losses, so for a total it's somewhere in the neighborhood between a 15 and 20% budget reduction in these last two years alone. And I think historically we've also – This is my sixth straight year of budget reductions in California's public schools.
CAVANAUGH: Well, okay, so, Mel, if you would, refresh our memories about the student population here at Lincoln. It's – You got about 22-2300 students on campus?
COLLINS: 2200, right.
CAVANAUGH: And is your school getting less money this year than last?
COLLINS: As always, yes.
CAVANAUGH: So it's the same sad story some of the…
COLLINS: Same sad story, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I'm wondering, you know, these numbers that you've been telling us are really – they're profound. I mean, how is it that you cope with having this kind of reduction. I want to start with you, Jennifer.
WALTERS: Well, you know, we're very much a people laden business. It takes caring, educated professionals to teach and support our students every day. So I would say in any school district budget, about 85% of the dollars are spent in people. So if you suffer a 20% budget reduction in your overall budget, there's a direct correlation in the services and in the adults, the people that provide those services to our students. So we've had to do a number of reductions overall and really, as a governance team, evaluate what are the most essential features to our school district, its instructional program and then to our future goals that we're working on, things that we want to improve.
CAVANAUGH: Were there layoffs? And…
WALTERS: We laid off teachers, we increased class size, kindergarten, first, second and third grade. We laid off about 16 custodians, counselors, lots of support staff from, say, the district office level. And all of those directly because there simply isn't the money to have those services.
CAVANAUGH: Dr. Gandara, is there a similar story at Sweetwater?
DR. GANDARA: Yeah, real similar. But I think that when you start looking at budget cuts, you start with a philosophy what is the philosophy of the organization? And in our district, the board was very clear and very direct and very adamant about, one, is protect the classroom, and two, try to save jobs. That's important to our board. So I believe we've – we have protected the classroom and I'm very pleased and proud to say that we have not sent one employee home as part of a RIF, or reduction in force, since I've been superintendent.
CAVANAUGH: And so what have you cut, though? Obviously with that kind of a huge amount of money cut from your budget, there had to be changes made.
DR. GANDARA: Sure. First of all, we looked at central office. Before we can ask the campuses to reduce their personnel, their allocations, I think that we, from central office, needed to look at ourselves. So since the last few years, we've cut close to $3 million in positions through attrition so as an administrator was retiring, we're looking at how to – how can we farm out those duties to two or three different individuals. So the philosophy has been we may have less money, we may have to do more work, but we're committed, again, to protecting that classroom and to saving jobs, so that's one example. Another is we lifted summer school, summer school, $4 million. We didn't have summer school last year but we left – we gave a million dollars, divvied among all the campuses to do academic interventions throughout the school year, so that was a savings of about $3 million. We increased the teacher-student ratio from 28-to-1 to 30-to-1. And I'm pleased to say that when you take a look at San Diego County, 30-to-1 is still below the county average. So that worked out for us and the saving's about $5 million.
CAVANAUGH: I'm sorry, did you say 20-to-1 to 30-to-1?
DR. GANDARA: 28-to-1…
CAVANAUGH: 28-to-1, okay.
DR. GANDARA: …to 30-to-1.
CAVANAUGH: Got it. Okay.
DR. GANDARA: And then we've cut 5% of individual budgets from district office to the campuses. And I'm sure my colleague also benefited, as I did, from the federal stimulus money. That gave our district a by…
DR. GANDARA: …to some degree.
CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to ask you, Mel, are there things that you budgeted for and you thought you were going to have this year on Lincoln that you're not having?
COLLINS: No, there are things that we had the first two years that we don't have. For instance, coming in with six and a half positions as campus security assistants were cut to four. And on 24 acres, four people don't go very far to supervise. Also a number of teachers still working on temporary contracts, not being given contracts to – over the long haul so that as we decrease in enrollment and we have less money, they can be, I don't know, I guess fired or given a pink slip. None were given that this past year and the board were able to save – I was able to save all of the jobs and nobody, because of the high retirement and the incentive that took place with getting folks ready to consider retiring, may come a struggle to replace, you know, some principals and vice principals throughout the school district. And as we came back in, everybody had a position as of right now. (audio interruption)
ANNOUNCER: And you are listening to These Days on KPBS Radio. We will continue with our live broadcast from Lincoln High School in just a moment on These Days. We're experiencing some technical problems right now and we apologize for the inconvenience. And on KPBS Television this evening, be sure to tune in for Envision San Diego. We'll be exploring school budget cuts and the impact on students and teachers. Our Envision TV special is this evening at 10:30 on KPBS. Here's what's coming up a bit later today. TV critic David Bianculli will be reviewing the premiere of the Jay Leno Show. Hear about that and more with engaging conversations with Terry Gross and Fresh Air at 1:00 on KPBS Radio. And our Tuesday weather, a mix of sun and clouds today, right around 70 at the beaches, low 70s inland, and low 80s in the interior valleys. It should be a few degrees warmer tomorrow afternoon. For the mountains, mostly sunny today, mid-to-upper 70s. Temps will peak near 100 today in Borrego Springs and the Imperial Valley.
CAVANAUGH: That was a little bit of a break we didn't anticipate. But we are on the campus of Lincoln High School. We're doing a remote broadcast right now. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. I was just reintroducing my guests. Jesus Gandara, superintendent for Sweetwater Union High School District. Jennifer Walters, superintendent of Escondido Union School District and Mel Collins, executive principal of Lincoln High School. And saying that if you have questions or comments about school budgeting across the county, you can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. You know, Jennifer, Jesus was – told us how they have cut back in other areas and there's no summer school – there was no summer school this year at Sweetwater. I'm wondering, what kind of classes, what kind of programs or services have taken a hit because of the school budget cuts?
WALTERS: Well, in – As you may know, it's a little bit different from each local school district…
WALTERS: …as they make decisions but in our particular situation in Escondido, we also tried to make the budget reductions as far away from the classroom as possible. But when you're talking about such dramatic numbers, amount of money to be reduced, there is an impact. One such one – or actually two, one has to do with we reduced our librarians' hours. So previously at our schools we had an eight-hour-a-day librarian at each of the schools and that is now down to six hours a day, so pretty much just the time that students are in schools and can visit the librarian. And, unfortunately, at this point in time, there aren't any before school or after school library hours. I mentioned we reduced our custodial staff that cleans our schools in the evenings and we reached out to teachers and students to help us pick up the trash at the end of the day and keep their classrooms a bit more tidy so that when those night custodians come in, they have less of a chore simply because there's less of them now. And each individual school, each principal like Mel, has had to make some decisions about what's most important to fund this particular year when resources are lean. We've been given, also, some tools from the state department. They've given us flexibility in our categorical programs and how we spend those. They've done some easing of our reserve requirements. And then as Jesus mentioned, the federal stimulus dollars, I think without those this particular year we would be talking about some major implications for classrooms.
CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Peter is calling from El Cajon. And good morning, Peter. Welcome to These Days.
PETER (Caller, El Cajon): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted to ask, under our current economic and political environment what does your panel believe that the state, federal and, you know, the Obama administration should be doing to help our schools?
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that question, Peter. I'd like to throw that open. Is there anything more – you mentioned the stimulus package, is there anything more that you think the state or the federal government could be doing? Mel, let me ask you.
COLLINS: Well, yeah, I have a long list here. No, in actuality the stimulus money has provided some extra resources as the two panel members have indicated. Certainly we try to, at the school level, keep those cuts as far away from the classroom as we possibly can and we're giving up clerks and campus security and custodial services and at the same time, as was mentioned, we have a number of very viable parent groups who will come in and help – and assist us with, you know, twice monthly clean-up crews and tidy up the campus and other areas that go lacking in certain respects so that we can keep the concentration on the kids and the teaching that goes on in the classroom.
CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, is there anything that you would like to see? I mean, I know the state has been taking money away from you guys so you probably would like them to stop doing that but is there any kind of a focus for the long term that you would like to see to keep the kind of funding in place that you need to run your school districts? I'm going to start with you, Jesus.
DR. GANDARA: They're called unfunded mandates where the state and the feds will give us a mandate but the funding won't come. There'll be a lot of discussion on how we're going to support the school districts, the states from the federal level, and then when it's all said and done we have an unfunded mandate. So that's one. I think that if we know what needs to happen in our schools – and our legislators, they, too, know what needs to happen in our schools, they need to not only implement policy and regulations but, along with it, the money needs to come. And that's been an issue for us for many years in public education. That's one area. The other is I think something's going to need to happen with No Child Left Behind. While I support No Child Left Behind because when you look at historically what has happened to children of poverty and children of color, and when the public school systems have historically not done well with those children in general, so No Child Left Behind brought an awareness and a focus on those children. Now let me say that not all children of poverty are children of color. There are many Caucasian children in this nation who are children of poverty who are not receiving the quality of education that they needed to receive. So while I support that focus and that part of No Child Left Behind, I think we need to put some realistic goals that measure school districts based on the academic success of all their children and the progress that they're having and not to say by this year, everyone will be at a grade level.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And Jennifer is – if you had that proverbial magic wand, what would you like to see the state or the federal government do for your district?
WALTERS: Well, I'd like to focus just for a moment, if I may, on the state government…
WALTERS: …and it's funding mechanism because as many of your listeners may know, there's something called the Proposition 98 guaranteed funding for public education. And a number of years ago, I think, when the voters approved that, clearly, they said, no, we want to fund adequately and support our public schools. And to this day, we have state legislators that say, ah, but public schools are receiving the Prop. 98 guaranteed minimum funding level. What it doesn't give us is a stable funding level. That is, when the economy's great, schools get more dollars. When the economy takes a huge hit, as it is in this current economic recession, we don't have the funds to maintain the system. And so with the Prop. 98 guarantee, as soon as the revenues from the state go down, so do the dollars to schools. And so it isn't working in terms of letting school leaders and school boards design good, strong instructional innovations and programs for students and then fund them stably in a predictable way over time. And that's really what we need.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I was speaking with the State Superintendent of Schools, Jack O'Connell, a couple of months ago and we were talking about school budget cuts and I asked him how much – how much more can the state cut from the education budget before we're in a crisis, and his answer was, well, I think we're in kind of a crisis right now. And I was wondering if you would like to comment on that perhaps and perhaps give your own opinion on where we are when it comes to the amount of money that we're actually giving schools and what you see in the future. And I'll start with you, Mel.
COLLINS: Well, you know, Maureen, at the school level it's somewhat removed because you're given x-number of dollars based on your enrollment and you make it work. And you have no other choice. And, yeah, there are – We're in this lean time crisis mode but as I go out and talk and deal with teachers and kids and community members, so what do we do? Sit back and not do it? No, we have a charge to do every day and that's to provide the very best for our kids, and you figure out a way to do it. And you have to cut back on some things and you don't get as – your classrooms don't get cleaned every night, you don't have the supervision. Everybody has to do a lot more with a lot less, including myself and others in the administrative ranks, the counseling ranks. And although your contract might call for x-y-and-z, well, I need you to do a-b-and-c also. And it's working outside that job spec. It's not about it's not in my job specification, let's just get it done. And you get it done by any means necessary.
CAVANAUGH: I've got to stop you there, and I posed this question to all three of you and I must apologize. We – I've been informed we've completely run out of time. So I want to thank my guests so much for coming in today. Jesus Gandara, superintendent for Sweetwater Union High School District, Jennifer Walters, superintendent of Escondido Union School District, and Mel Collins, executive principal of Lincoln High School. Thank you all for stopping by and speaking with us today. Coming up: lessons on motivating students from one of the nation's best teachers, as These Days continues its special broadcast from Lincoln High.