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Santa Rosa school board approves budget cuts to help overcome $13 million deficit

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Dino Battaglini stood before Santa Rosa’s school board Wednesday night and asked its leaders why his job as an advocate for students learning English was on the chopping block, given the district’s constant efforts to promote equal opportunity.

“Why are we having all these inequity conversations but eliminating the positions fighting for underrepresented, marginalized students?” Battaglini said before the Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Education reversed course and agreed to keep the jobs of Battaglini and fellow counselor Sal Barrera.

The two jobs were among a list of roughly $10.7 million in preliminary budget cuts the Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Education discussed as it is seeking to overcome a nearly $13 million deficit and avoid ceding control of its budget to the state.

The counselors, who help about 1,200 students still learning English advance to regular classes and ultimately graduate, were part of 17 positions proposed for cuts. The other 15 positions are currently vacant.

After hearing the appeals from Battaglini and Barrera, who criticized the district for championing their work yet proposing to remove their jobs, the board unanimously adopted an amended list of cuts from school board member Omar Medina that allowed the counselors to remain.

School board member Alegría De La Cruz also asked to keep two student engagement jobs intact so the district could introduce more enrichment activities for students at Steele Lane and Luther Burbank elementary schools.

Combined, the school board approved a plan that took the equivalent of nearly 13 full-time positions off the budget, providing about $3 million in savings by slashing personnel.

All but the two so-called Supporting Our Language Learner counselor positions were vacant. Another $3.5 million came from reducing various operating costs.

District officials will now have to look elsewhere for additional savings in order to close the remaining $2.3 million gap and balance its $185 million general fund.

Wednesday’s school board discussion was one step toward finalizing its budget for the current school year. Because the district couldn’t meet all its financial obligations over the next three years, California requirements mandate a recovery plan through 2021-22.

To meet the state-mandated 3% in emergency reserves, the district also moved $3 million in charter funds to avoid having to make additional cuts.

“We have to go home and live with the decisions we do make,” said school board member Ed Sheffield. “Cuts are always going to be difficult and it’s heart-wrenching at times ... That is the current reality, and it needs to be said.”

Santa Rosa, like many districts in Sonoma County, is grappling with declining enrollment and inconsistent funding from the state, said Rick Edson, Santa Rosa’s deputy superintendent. Projections show Santa Rosa’s public schools will have lost almost 1,500 students between 2015 and 2021.

In 2019, the Santa Rosa slashed 50 positions to cut costs. There were no major cuts that would have impacted the day-to-day in local classrooms, but as enrollment goes down, district officials warned that so, too, will staff since there would be fewer students to care for.

“With less students creates unwanted opportunities with the budget,” Edson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the number of positions cut in the amended proposal, as well as the two elementary schools where student engagement staff would remain.

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