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Sheridan school on chopping block?

Closing rural school just one proposal in front of district budget committee
By: Liz Kellar The News Messenger
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When trustees of Western Placer Unified School District announced their intent at a special meeting March 11 to lay off a total of 20.7 full-time employee positions for 2008-09, a buzz of speculation filled the air. One man in the room, however, already knew he was on the list “ Sheridan Elementary School Principal Kris Knutson. When Knutson broke the news at a Sheridan Municipal Advisory Council meeting the following evening, many Sheridan residents were, understandably, dismayed. They were even more upset to learn that the placement of Knutson on the layoff list was prompted by the inclusion of Sheridan's school on a list of possible cost-cutting measures currently being compiled by a district budget committee. Like many other districts around the state, Western Placer is facing a major financial crunch as it is forced to swallow its share of $4-plus billion in education cuts related to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget proposal, which was released in January. The budget committee, which is comprised of 15 people from all facets of the school district, has been charged with identifying ways to come up with $2.5 million, the district's projected shortfall. According to district Superintendent Scott Leaman, there are a large number of items on the list, none of which are set in stone. We're looking at sports fees, bus fees, raising class sizes, optional field trips, Leaman said. We're looking for ideas that won't ruin or impact our core programs. We're at the idea collection stage. The budget committee is scheduled to meet on April 14 to discuss each proposal, and from there its recommendations will go to the board of trustees, possibly by May 6. All proposals will be evaluated for their savings potentials, as well as other criteria. According to Leaman, some initial proposals already have not panned out. Increasing class sizes, for example, would mean a loss of state revenue. The possible move of closing the Sheridan school is what led to his name being placed on the layoff list, Knutson explained. Though a final state budget might not be approved until late summer, trustees were required to notify certificated staff of layoffs by March 15 and base fiscal projections on the most recent state budget proposal. The district hopes the budget situation will have changed by the time confirmation letters are scheduled to go out on May 15. Knutson said that in his estimation, the district will discover there is no significant cost savings to be made by closing Sheridan Elementary School. Out here, it really doesn't cost a lot to run the school, he said. The staff has seniority, so the cost savings isn't there. Knutson said that Sheridan did lose 10 students over the last year, but said enrollment has remained fairly stable at approximately 80 students. That's one thing about taking over a small school, Knutson said ruefully. You always have that enrollment issue that keeps rearing its ugly head. But this community really needs the school. While Sheridan does have a smaller enrollment, Knutson said that is partially because the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders were moved out two years ago. We're very trim out here, he said. We have combination classes at all grade levels. While Knutson understands the budget process, he still is left in limbo. It makes me do things to protect myself, he said. There's a big difference between a principal's pay and a teacher's pay “ and I've got a couple of kids in college. I've spoken with my staff and I've spoken to the community, and they know I'm working for them and definitely advocating for them, but I have to take care of myself. Security for my family is number one, he continued. I've explained that to everybody. That would be my number one priority. Knutson could not rule out accepting another position if his principal post remains up in the air. It would just be really, really unfortunate if I accepted another job and this job stayed open, he said. This whole budget thing has got everyone tied up in knots. I'm tossing and turning over it. Leaman also is faced with an untenable situation “ that of possibly losing key employees during this process. I don't deal with that very well, he admitted. I can look at the process and engage that part of my mind “ but person to person, it's gut-wrenching to too many people's lives. I'm charged with maintaining the financial stability of the district and the numbers just don't crunch that it won't affect someone personally.