Paso Robles student programs get slashed

Paso Robles classrooms will get more crowded next year, and campuses will cut back library staff and offer fewer electives, while students walk farther to school.

The Paso Robles school board this week slashed an additional $4.4 million from its 2010-11 budget in an attempt to rectify an expected $7.8 million shortfall.

The program cuts follow millions of dollars in reductions that have already been enacted as the district deals with state budget shortfalls and declining enrollment.

And the cuts aren’t over. District staff expects an additional $750,000 will also need to be eliminated.

On Thursday, board member and retired teacher Tim Gearhart was driving to North County wineries to solicit donations for the district’s performing arts programs. Activities such as drama, choir, band and music have either been eliminated or greatly reduced.

“Every program that we are being forced to cut back is in some way critical,” Gearhart said. “It is like having to decide which toe you are going to have to cut off next. It is overwhelming.”

More than 65 people could lose their jobs with the new cuts, including classroom teachers, librarians, school counselors, secretaries and custodial staff.

Entire programs were eliminated, such as the Endeavor Academy, a science-oriented program. Elementary students will have to walk up to three miles to catch a bus to school, with older students walking up to five miles if they want a ride.

“I keep thinking and hoping that the state won’t make more cuts,” said Jim Lynett, president of the Paso Robles Public Educators teachers union. “To heap on top of what has already been done is just absurd.”

The district expects to lose more than $1.4 million in state funding in 2010-11, and when coupled with a loss of special federal funds, declining enrollment and a decrease in cost-of-living adjustments, total revenue is expected to be down $2 million.

At the same time, increases in expenses and liabilities are projected to be $5.7 million.

The cuts made this week total $4.4 million, but the district is able to make key adjustments in some accounting that add $2.6 million back to the bottom line. What remains to be covered, then, is $750,000.

Other cost-cutting proposals that would help the district make up that gap include staff furloughs and salary decreases, which could mean up to five fewer instructional days for students.

Lynett said the cuts are stifling.

“We can’t do our jobs — we can’t teach these kids,” Lynett said. “The kids are already suffering, and it will be much, much worse.”

The district has 6,781 students this year — 90 fewer than the 6,871 it had last year at its 11 schools.

“What is happening here because of state cuts in funding is the slow dismemberment of everything the citizens of this town have developed in their schools for the last 20 years,” Gearheart said. “We are fighting for just plain survivorship.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.