San Luis Coastal trustees are grappling with a proposal to slash more than $5 million from the district’s budget next year that would cut deeply into programs many parents consider essential.
The reductions would eliminate music specialists from kindergarten through third-grade classrooms, change how English learners receive instruction and lead to larger class sizes.
Superintendent Eric Prater said the reductions are needed to compensate for state budget cuts, to pay for raises given to teachers in January and to cover the added cost of the district’s newly revamped five-year strategic plan.
The main impacts to students will be larger classes, fewer electives, less money for high school athletic travel and the loss of music instructors in kindergarten through third grade.
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Trustees listened to public comments for more than two hours Tuesday night as speaker after speaker stepped up to the podium to defend the school district’s elementary music program, English learner specialists and the Morro Bay High School automotive class that will likely be canceled.
If the school board adopts the budget proposal, kindergarten through third-grade students would no longer have a 30-minutes-per-week music specialist. Instead, elementary teachers would be asked to incorporate music into their lesson plans.
The proposal drew outrage from dozens of current and former students, parents, teachers and community members who made impassioned pleas to keep the music program in its current form.
“The program works efficiently as it is,” said Ron McCarley, a music teacher at Cuesta College. “Music provides a connection to school, and cutting it would doom some of these students to academic failure.” In defense of the cuts, Prater noted that “San Luis Coastal enjoys more programs than any other district in the state.”
“We have to scale back and reconfigure,’’ he added. “This is just the first phase — more cuts will come in future years.”
Administrators have identified an $8.5 million structural deficit in the fiscal year budget that begins July 1. The district will use reserve funds to offset the gap in 2012-13 but will ask the board to make more cuts next year.
Unlike most school districts in San Luis Obispo County, which receive state funding based on attendance, San Luis Coastal is a “basic aid” district that gets the majority of its revenue from property taxes. Its general fund budget this fiscal year is $72 million.
Basic aid districts get enough money from property taxes to meet or exceed minimum funding levels set by the state. The future of the basic aid funding mechanism is uncertain, as state legislators struggle with the state’s floundering budget. If the funding system changed, it could mean a loss of up to $6 million for San Luis Coastal, which has remained healthier than neighboring districts.
“We have to be realistic about what we have to do,” said trustee Marilyn Rodger. “We have to become a lean and focused machine and make hard cuts that will make us stay afloat and successful with students.”
Of the changes to the music program, board President Chris Ungar said, “It really comes down to what kind of program we really want to have in kindergarten to third grades. Do we want music appreciation or music instruction?”
Board members also expressed concern about the elimination of the English learner specialists.
Prater said the changes were necessary to close the persistent achievement gap between English learners and other students. “It is a takeaway,” Prater said. “But the current model is not effective.”
Responsibility to address the added needs of English learners will now fall on classroom teachers, Prater said.
As these cuts are being made, additional resources are being added to school sites as part of the district’s $6 million strategic plan, which is intended to dramatically increase student test scores, improve technology in classrooms and increase the number of students who qualify for the UC and CSU systems.
Those additions include preschool programs at high-poverty schools, added intervention sections at middle and high schools, expanded Regional Occupational Program sections at both high schools and increased Advanced Placement course offerings.
“We are in the process of prioritizing what is most important to us,” Prater said. “The initiatives really speak to the education and demonstrable learning of kids. All the other programs we offer and the specialists we are using to do it need to be under scrutiny.”
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.