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Budget cuts at Lucia Mar are a lesson in subtraction

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

With 153 students in five classes, Arroyo Grande High School history teacher Jim Gregory sometimes logs 60-hour weeks grading papers and planning lessons, even working Saturdays to give extra help to students before exams.

Colleen Franco, a fifth-grade teacher at Ocean View Elementary, went to a summer institute to learn how to better teach science after district administrators reassigned four teachers who for the past few years taught a weekly science/health lesson to all fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students.

And George Griffin, who teaches sixth grade at Grover Heights Elementary, has done away with his own desk to make room for 34 students — their behavior improves when they aren’t seated as closely together, he said.

The teachers are just three of 526 instructors in the Lucia Mar Unified School District who over the past few years have learned how to do more with less as district administrators have grappled with a sharp drop in funding from the state.

District board members earlier this year faced a $5 million shortfall in the current budget. In 2009, they issued 229 layoff notices to teachers while trying to close a $9.4 million shortfall.

The district ultimately laid off 90 teachers, but reinstated 30 of them; federal money helped to hire back dozens more.

“The reduction didn’t come just in classroom teachers, it came across the board,” said Janice Smith, the district’s interim assistant superintendent of business. “We’ve made massive cuts in every department.”

That includes cuts to non-teaching positions, such as bus drivers, librarians, custodians and computer lab technicians. There are four fewer secretaries now than there were three years ago. The district has also decreased the amount of money it gives to each school site by 40 percent since the 2008-09 year.

Smith will present an interim budget report to the school board on Jan. 11, which will include some projections for future years.

Top concern: Class sizes

Increased class sizes are among the top changes that teachers mention when asked about the impact of budget cuts.

“If you ask most teachers, if a class goes from 30 to 35 (students), that doesn’t sound like a big deal,” Gregory said, “but in terms of classroom management that can make it difficult.”

In the 1996-97 school year, the district took advantage of an offer from the state for additional funding if it reduced class sizes in grades kindergarten through third, Stenson said.

That dropped class sizes to an average of 20 students to one teacher in those grades — until two years ago, when the district stopped the program.

Now, teachers in those grades have an average of 26 students; grades four through six have an average of 30 students in a class.

“You wouldn’t think it would be a huge difference, but it is,” said Franco, who taught 29 students last year. This year, she has 34.

“Five more papers to correct, five more needs,” she said. “I felt like I was struggling to know and be there for all my kids with 29, and having five more, it’s like ‘How am I ever going to reach all of my kids?’ Some are going to sit in the corner and never raise their hands, and you have to recognize those.”

The district had 237 elementary school teachers when class-size reduction was in place; now it has 197, Stenson said.

Debbie Huhn, a first-grade teacher at Harloe Elementary, said she had “nightmares” trying to figure out how to fit 29 desks into the classroom — up from 20 student desks two years earlier.

She’s also dealing with larger-than-usual reading groups and has scrambled to find enough copies of each book to accommodate the groups.

The budget cuts have created a situation that’s “worse than it’s ever been” in her 23 years with the district, Huhn said

“Just the fact that there’s a lot less money for things, even necessities like papers, crayons, copies,” Huhn elaborated. “We’re asking parents to bring in a lot more things that were supplied to us before.”

Huhn said she spends about $20 a month on supplies, plus an additional $50 on items the students will use to make their parents Christmas presents, and about $100 stocking up on items like crayons and folders before the school year starts.

“I think we all feel a lot more anxiety to get the job done with less,” she said.

Teachers have noticed other impacts: music programs have been cut, money for sports is scaled back, and computers are wearing out.

Bus transportation is not available to students who live less than three miles from their school, and students who do take it pay a transportation fee.

Griffin, of Grover Heights Elementary, said he can’t remember the last time the school was able to bring in an outside speaker, and the band program, which was once open to fifth- and sixth-grade students, is now available only to the sixth-graders.

The district has also not given across-the-board raises in the past few years, though teachers still receive increases in pay as they move up a salary schedule.

“Well over half of our teachers receive a larger paycheck each year as a result of their movement in the step and column system,” Stenson wrote in an e-mail.

“I know this is a tough economy, and I know people are suffering,” said Gregory, who has taught 14 years at Arroyo Grande High. “But the cost of living hasn’t stood still. There’s only so much blood you can squeeze from a turnip.”

Student perspective

On a recent school day, 35 sophomores squeezed into one of Gregory’s Advanced Placement European history classes at Arroyo Grande High.

After a practice quiz, they moved desks and formed six groups to debate a tax proposal as part of a lesson on the French Revolution.

“There’s not enough room to put them,” Gregory noted as the students huddled together.

Several students interviewed said they’ve noticed the impacts of budget cuts.

“It’s a lot of little things,” said Carlie Hughes, such as a teacher asking students to reuse one multiple choice form for four different tests. Some teachers aren’t able to work with all their students because there are so many, she said.

Student Landyn Saputo said she participated in a speech and debate class for awhile. It’s now a club coached by volunteers.

Some teachers seem stressed, Saputo said, because “they have to make sure their jobs aren’t cut.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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