Jolene Johnson uses ballet, hip-hop, jazz and modern dance to teach students about creativity, teamwork and perseverance.
But two of her three dance classes now face the budget ax at El Molino High School. If they are eliminated, leaving Johnson with a part-time job, the dance teacher would be forced to leave the Forestville campus.
“I couldn’t stay there,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t afford to live where I am, in Sonoma County, with only 60 percent of my income.”
El Molino and Analy high schools could lose more than three dozen class offerings and their seven-period school days as the West Sonoma County Union High School District seeks to close a $1.2 million budget shortfall.
The financial challenges squeezing the Sebastopol district are being felt in districts across Sonoma County.
Despite a growing economy and Gov. Jerry Brown’s pledge to provide an additional $3 billion to K-12 schools for the coming year, Sonoma County school districts are bracing for millions in spending cuts. Facing declining enrollment and ballooning costs for employee health care and pensions, district officials say they’ll have to cut staff, increase class sizes and scale back course offerings to close the budget gaps.
School trustees across the county are already making the tough calls on layoffs, facing a mid-March deadline to notify affected teachers and staff.
Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, needs to trim $6.2 million, or about 3 percent of its operating budget. In Sonoma Valley, school board members recently approved $2.4 million in spending cuts for next year.
Santa Rosa school district officials last week presented to school board members more than two dozen recommendations from the budget advisory committee for spending cuts, totaling $7.6 million. They included slightly boosting the student-teacher ratio, eliminating the need for 27 teachers and saving the district about $2.3 million.
Teachers argued the measure will come at a cost for students.
“If you cut that many teacher jobs, we’re going to lose programs. Class sizes are going to go up, and we’re going to have fewer electives,” said Will Lyon, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, which represents nearly 1,000 educators.
He and dozens of other teachers packed the Feb. 14 school board meeting. They urged school board members to “use a scalpel and not hatchet” when making budget cuts after the committee also suggested eliminating the jobs of four elementary prep teachers and most of the five home and hospital teachers, who work with students unable to attend school because of medical conditions. The home and hospital teachers, who work with up to six students a day, recently saw a pay increase after the district agreed under a new collective bargaining agreement to put them on the salary schedule, rather than paying them hourly.
District officials said they’ll look at attrition to reduce layoffs. Even with retirements, which average about 30 a year, officials say they still may have to hand out pink slips next month.
Staffing costs consume about three-quarters of the Santa Rosa City Schools’ budget, said André Bell, assistant superintendent of business services. That leaves little room to cut elsewhere, he said.
“At some point, it’s going to have to touch personnel because that is the largest part of the budget,” Bell said.