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District talks worst-case scenarios amid state budget cuts

By: Cheri March, The News Messenger
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At least it could be worse. That was the mantra being repeated by trustees of Western Placer Unified School District on Tuesday, as they struggled to comprehend proposed statewide budget cuts for the next two years, including a possible $5 million deficit by 2009-10. "It starts looking like Monopoly money," said Terri Ryland, interim assistant superintendent of business. "You start asking, how can I take this seriously?" Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed slicing $4.8 billion from K-12 education by 2008-09, including mid-year cuts in the current 2007-08 year. The district would need to eliminate approximately $3 million from its budget to offset the loss. "The only good news - if it is good news - is that we're not the lone rangers in this," said Superintendent Scott Leaman. Trustees pointed out that WPUSD is still growing, unlike many school districts in California losing students. But the district growth is slowing, indicated by enrollment growth projections of a little more than 4 percent and 3 percent over the next two years. That's compared to 10 percent to 12 percent over the past three years. "This is the first time in almost 10 years that we've looked at a decline in enrollment," Ryland said. A sluggish economy - and possibly foreclosures in Lincoln - might play a role, she said. Currently, the district receives 200 more kindergarten students than 12th-graders, leading consultant Ron Feist to warn in a report that younger kids would eventually require increased middle and high school facilities. But new schools seemed far away as the board members reeled from the numbers. Ryland said the district would face a ½ percent, or approximately $170,600, cut this year. Coupled with rising expenses, the mid-year slice still leaves a balance of $1.53 million. But the positive balance wouldn't last long. In 2008-09, the district could take a $2.6 million hit, resulting in a deficit of $1.49 million by 2008-09 and $5.11 million by 2009-10. Despite a cost-of-living adjustment of 4.94 percent next year, a revenue limit deficit would be 6.99 percent. "This is the first time the deficit is actually greater than the COLA," Ryland said. Up to $1.7 million could be cut from programs like special education, transportation and benefits for class size reduction by next year. Leaman said he would put together a budget committee to prioritize potential reductions. "I hope it's much better than this, but if we don't take steps right now, we might be in a situation where we could not make it financially," Leaman said. "We have to act as if some of these things really are real. That will cause us to look at some of the worst-case situations." Leaman called for sensitivity to prevent "overreacting" when considering cuts to a budget made up 90 percent by people. Ideally, the committee will be able to eliminate areas that don't directly affect classrooms, or only affect one class or grade level, he said. Committee recommendations could be brought to the board in March. Education is not alone in its potential loss. In January, Schwarzenegger proposed 10 percent across-the-board spending cuts to counter the state's looming $14.5 billion deficit. Statistics from the Education Coalition, brought forth by Western Placer Teacher's Association president Mike Agrippino, likened education cuts to shutting down every school across California for nearly a month, or laying off more than 107,000 teachers. "It's hard to believe this district is being put in this position," said trustee James McLeod.