Antelope Valley Schools Bleeding From Budget Cuts

avhsSign.jpg Jennifer Nieves still loves her job as secretary to the principal of Antelope Valley High School, despite being forced to take three unpaid furlough days this school year.

She and hundreds of other Antelope Valley Union High School District employees took these unpaid days off to save the district money as it was scrounging to fill an $11 million budget deficit last year around this time. Nieves said she felt good about taking the days off because she and her fellow employee's collective sacrifice saved at least one of her school co-workers her job.

The state's financial crisis is putting a huge strain on school funding. The Legislature pulled funding from schools all over the state in order to balance its budget. So, like districts across California, Antelope Valley Union High School District is facing an estimated $20 million shortfall for the 2010-2011 school year. That's according to Brenda Yardeen, chief financial officer for the district.

The district's budget committee is currently in negotiation with the district's board of trustees, searching for ways to cut costs or raise revenues.. Yardeen and the committee have presented several different scenarios during recent meetings. She said she thinks they now close to an agreement on how to proceed.

The budget proposal includes putting off big maintenance fixes like replacing roofs and repaving parking lots. That will save the district somewhere around $16 million.

Yardeen said the district will also be cutting counseling services at each campus. Counselors will only focus their efforts on special-needs students from now on, which she estimates will save the district another million dollars.

Then there is dropping enrollment, which has already saved the district about $1 million for next year, according to Yardeen. There are 450 fewer students enrolled in this current school year, which means the district could cut 14 teachers and save money on salaries and benefits.

Yardeen has asked all the schools to trim their budgets for next year; to make do with fewer supplies. The district hopes to save about $1.2 million that way.

She has also restricted teachers from putting in new supplies orders for the remaining two and a half months of the current school year. So if there's an art project a class hasn't started yet, teachers have been instructed to cut it from the syllabus.

Clyde Merrick, president of the local chapter of the California School Employees Association, said that during last year's budget negotiations his people took the worst hits. Now he is simply trying to make sure they get to keep their jobs.

Clive Merrick
Union leader Clyde Merrick.
Photo by Alaena Hostetter

Merrick represents about 900 "classified" employees &mdash custodians, maintenance workers, secretaries, lunch attendants and clerical staff &mdash anyone who isn't a teacher or administrator.

Last year around this time the district faced an $11 million deficit, according to Merrick. His group was tasked with delivering $1.4 million in savings. That's where the furlough days came in. Merrick said they saved the district $150,000 per day.

Classified employees also sacrificed their annual salary increase of 1 percent, which saved the district $580,000 overall.

Additionally, the district decided not to fill empty classified employee positions unless they were absolutely necessary.

"We're about bare bones if you ask me," said Merrick. "Our custodial staff is as minimal as it gets. Hell, we're cleaning classrooms every three and four days right now."

Merrick says classified staff is the first to be cut because the district's goal is to keep cuts as far away from classrooms as possible.

"Which sounds good," responded Merrick. "But the problem is, a custodian is very much involved in how clean...the environment is for a kid to be able to learn in."

And with three and four nights between cleanings, desks aren't wiped down and floors aren't getting vacuumed.

The district hasn't been totally successful in keeping the effects away from classrooms. Classes have each had to take on three extra students. With classroom sizes nearing 40 students, it puts a big strain on the teachers, said Gene Smith, president of the Antelope Valley Teachers' Association.

Additionally, with the school district cutting back on the number of counselors on each campus, the student-to-counselor ratio is about 600 to 1. Counselors say they aren't able to devote as much time and resources to students who aren't considered at-risk by the school.

"There's been a reduction in the...support that we've been able to give to students," said Smith.

He said the teachers in the district have worked extra hard to keep students from feeling the compromises and cutbacks. Everyone has had to sacrifice. But the budget cuts in the school district have been devastating. Smith said that teachers cannot continue to carry this heavy of a load and still be able to provide the same level of education as before.

"My biggest fear is that we would continue down this road in future years," said Smith. "That we would continue to have to increase class size to remain solvent... You become less and less able to provide a quality product to students in the district."

Cutting more jobs is the worst-case scenario in the Antelope Valley Union High School District, which is in a region of Southern California that has already suffered from high unemployment.

"The thought of having to lose anybody is awful. Everybody is an integral part of the program," said Principal Laura Herman of Highland High School.

Herman said the district is making up some money despite the budget shortfalls because it qualifies for funding under the Federal Recovery Act.

In order to keep qualifying for that funding, students have to meet specific quality standards. So she says the district has put a lot of that money into language arts, special education and English as a second language.

Despite the possibly grim future that the budget compromises will bring, people who work for the district are trying to remain positive.

"I do know that I love working for the district," said Nieves. "They have always been kind to their employees and treat us like family."

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