Bodega Bay school spared, but at cost of teachers’ jobs

09/04/2014

Bodega Bay School has been saved from closure, an announcement at last Thursday’s school board meeting that drew happy cheers and applause from a packed house. 

“That option is off the table,” board president Jane Healy said at the very beginning of the meeting, leaving many who had been exasperated by the closure with little to say. “The board has all checked in with the superintendent and communicated that none of us are in favor of closing Bodega Bay School. It doesn’t make long-term financial sense for our school district.”

But with so much anxiety still felt by Bodega Bay parents, confusion about the intricacies of the budget and plain bewilderment about just where all those millions of dollars had gone, there was scant discussion afterwards of where other cuts would be made instead. (Spanish speakers also found themselves without a translator; two dozen were reported to have left, some striking their names from the sign-in sheet.) A Sept. 30 deadline from Marin County Office of Education looms at the end of this month’s calendar to receive approval from the county superintendent and stave off a takeover by state-appointed budget officials. 

In the latest proposal provided to the Light this week by Superintendent Tom Stubbs, staffing cuts for teachers will be deeper than originally proposed—two additional teacher layoffs for a total of eight permanent cuts. To distribute the pain of cuts to support staff, hours will be reduced for instructional assistants, a groundskeeper and a custodian. Administrators suggested permanent elimination of funding for the elementary schools’ breakfast program and for Walker Creek, a ten percent cut to the Tomales High School athletic budget and a reduction of half the spending for office supplies in hopes that nonprofits, parent contributions and fundraising can supplement any loss of services. 

Spread out over this school year and the two subsequent years, the school district will save $2.17 million total, nearer to closing a structural gap of $1.5 million that had been built into each year’s budget by huge windfalls from the federal government in recent years. 

“What we are doing now should have been done some time ago over the past ten years. A veil has been removed to really see this district’s budget, which has all been hidden under the way the federal impact aid has come to the district,” Mr. Stubbs told the Light. “With this proposal, we push out bankruptcy a few more years, and every year going forward we need to have a plan in place to knock down this structural deficit.”

Over the past decade, enrollment has declined from 660 students in the 2004-05 school year to 509 students last year, but the school district expanded its staffing from 50.78 teachers to 51.14 teachers. Support staff, too, jumped from 37.79 to 41.16 over the same ten-year period (not including transportation staff). County officials pointed to this disjointed logic in their assessment of the budget, noting additional staff was recently hired even as enrollment is estimated to decline to 463 students by 2016-17. 

Since staffing costs—$5.02 million for teacher and administrator salaries, $2.32 for support staff salaries and $3.14 for all employee benefits—make up 83 percent of Shoreline’s expenditures, administrators identified layoffs and retirements as the primary place the district could save funds.

If staff cannot be reduced through enough retirements to save $750,000 in salaries within the next two years, five teachers will lose their jobs through layoff notices this spring and another three will receive pink slips the following spring in 2016. To make those cuts, school administrators may eliminate or reduce counseling positions and reading intervention teachers and cut some sections of high school classes. Most of these savings proposed, however, could be achieved through combining classrooms at the elementary schools—$435,000, according to the latest estimates.

That idea of multi-grade classes has been controversial since it first arose among ad hoc budget committee members. At a June 30 meeting in the high school library, the chief business official Susan Skipp laid out how multi-grade classes could result in a reduction of five teachers by combining K-1, 1-2 and 4-5 at Tomales Elementary School as well as 3-4 and two sections of 6-7-8 at West Marin School for the 2015-16 school year.  

“You’d have a loss of parents too,” one West Marin School parent, before another parent Heidi Koenig seconded that “combination classes would be a really bad idea.” At last Thursday’s meeting, Ms. Koenig commented that combination classes were the “elephant in the room that’s not been spoken about,” seemingly the only place to make substantial cuts at the elementary schools. 

Administrators and several teachers responded that multi-grade classrooms would be a necessity but could also provide a benefit to students. Classes at Bodega Bay School are already combined into K-1-2 and 3-4-5-, so the district has a precedent and expertise available for a transition, Mr. Stubbs said. 

“My daughter in eighth grade last year at West Marin School had the luxury of being in a class of nine students,” said Matt Nagle, W.M.S.’s principal. “I don’t see how that will be fiscally possible going forward. I think the days of nine kids in a class are gone. I just don’t see that happening in the next three years.”

The school district could be relieved from difficult layoffs if veteran teachers who earn salaries near the top of the scale choose to retire soon. By December, nine teachers will be sexagenarians, one aged 65 and three at 64, Ms. Skipp told the budget commitee. (Fourteen support staff will also be 60 and over, and three are in their early seventies.)

While the district’s procedure for layoffs has not yet been finalized, there are rules and guidelines in state law that must be followed, such as the general principle of “first in, last out” the often leads to the most recent hires receiving layoff notices. But Mr. Stubbs said he plans to do everything he can to keep the best teachers in the district, regardless of age. 

The district is also seeking to find $265,000 in cuts to the classified staff—secretaries, librarians, aides, custodians, groundskeepers, bus drivers, chefs—over the upcoming two years. In the current proposal hours will be reduced for instructional assistants and for one groundskeeper and one custodian by 25 percent, saving a total of $115,000. Para-educators like library clerks and computer lab assistants will see the largest cuts down to half time, saving another $122,000. By eliminating the breakfast program for the elementary schools, $32,000 will be cut in staffing costs, plus additional savings from the cost of food. Decisions for exactly how reduced hours will be doled out to staff will be left for each school site to decide, Mr. Stubbs said. 

“I know a lot of you have the impression, ‘Well, what’s going on here?’” trustee Jim Lino commented as more and more audience members asked why an updated proposal was not being presented at the meeting, even though a written draft was distributed to the board members. (According to the Brown Act, which the Shoreline trustees were supposed to learn about that night, written communication that is provided to all, or the majority of, trustees during a public meeting must be made available for inspection at the meeting.) “I like what [Monique Moretti, a trustee] said about, ‘Let’s just put it out there so you can all hear it.’ But I also think we have to maintain an ordered process, which we’ll do as soon as we can.” 

One woman from Bodega Bay School stood up and asked why anyone on the board should be trusted. “She’s not alone in that,” a second man added. 

“Trust us that we want to come up with something collectively as Shoreline Unified School District so that the county doesn’t come in and make decisions for us,” Ms. Moretti responded. “If we can’t show them by September 30, that we collectively as a board—as a community—have come up with a reliable, realistic and sustainable plan that puts us into fiscal solvency, they will come in. And when the county comes in, or when the state comes in, they’re not going to take into consideration how we feel as a community or what Bodega Bay School means. Trust us enough to not let that happen. If we can’t do that, then we’ve failed you.”

The ad hoc budget committee will discuss the updated proposal on Monday, September 8, at 6 p.m. at Tomales High School.