Bottom Line II — Hermosa’s ‘Bare Bones’ school budget

As Hermosa’s 1,300-student school district braces for a possible 10 percent cut to its already dwindling revenue stream, educators are studying a “bare bones” budget that would provide the minimum schooling that state law allows.

In Sacramento, officials are contemplating $4.8 billion in new cuts that could chop $1 million from the Hermosa district. State education officials say the cuts become more and more likely as the governor’s plan to extend higher taxes fails to gain traction.

“Really, what is a bare bones budget in Hermosa,” said Jack Burns, a school board member with three kids in the city’s schools. “Let’s just model it out and see what happens.”

Burns, a business owner with a master’s degree in business administration, sits on a special committee doing something like zero-based budgeting, in which an agency disregards its current revenues and expenses, and instead tries to rebuild itself from the ground up, justifying each expense, one by one.

Other committees are looking into possibilities such as merging Hermosa’s K-8 district with a larger, neighboring school district, asking voters for more money through a parcel tax, or converting one or both of Hermosa’s campuses to charter school status.

But Burns’ budget committee is the spearhead, and its findings are anxiously awaited by members of other committees, who are expected to shape their recommendations accordingly.

The committees are expected to finish their homework and present it to the school board in June.

A school district budget cannot be cut all the way to zero, even on paper, Burns said.

“There are certain things you have to do,” he said.

The school district would need a teacher for each class it offers, people to answer the phones, perform custodial and maintenance work, keep the books, receive and pay out money, file required reports to state and county officials, and provide some administration, from responding to parent concern to overseeing the discipline of students or teachers.

And as the committee looks at how much the school district could shrink, it also is trying to determine what effects the shrinkage would have on the students’ education.

For instance, the committee will almost certainly find that it would be legal to combine the position of district superintendent with one of the two principal positions. But school board member Cathy McCurdy said the district did just that years ago, and lost special education-related revenue when deadlines were not met for filing reports, calling into question the cost-effectiveness of such a move.

“I would be a no vote, flat out,” for merging the positions, McCurdy told her colleagues at a March board meeting.

“We’re trying to find the tipping point – at what point [do program cuts] begin to diminish the quality of education,” Burns said.

If the district no longer receives salary subsidies to keep class sizes small in the early grades, how many kids per classroom defines that tipping point, Burns pondered.

“We want to drill down on all these areas,” he said.

Some other expenses cannot be chopped by the school board alone. The salaries and benefits of employees are set through collective bargaining, although the district and the schools’ employee association have adopted a non-confrontational negotiating approach that led to no pay raises in the last round.

The numbers

Burns’ budget committee is in the process of translating the current district budget from the arcane form required by state officials into one that is understandable to the layperson. But in the meantime, the outlines of the budget can be understood through a report put together by Burns and Angela Jones, the district’s business director, which burrowed into the district’s finances for the previous school year.

In 2009-2010, the district’s expenses totaled $9.9 million. As always the state government provided the vast bulk of the funding, although for the past several years, the private fundraising efforts of parents and other community members have covered as much as 10 percent of the district’s expenses.

Total salaries and benefits for employees accounted for the lion’s share of the expenses at $7.2 million.

Teachers’ salaries and benefits cost about $5.4 million. A district superintendent and a principal for each campus cost $410,000, while maintenance and custodial workers cost about $363,000.

Early grades

Beginning with teacher compensation:

Including salary and expenses, six kindergarten teachers were paid a total of $487,000; seven first grade teachers were paid a total of $641,000; and seven second grade teachers were paid a total of 553,000.

Five third grade teachers and one half-time teacher were paid a total of $457,000.

(The salaries of individual teachers vary in part because some have achieved “step” and “column” increases based on years of service and a higher level of ongoing training and education.)

In addition to regular state funding, the school district received an additional $400,000 from the community fundraisers, and $475,000 from a special state fund, to help cover kindergarten-through-third grade instruction.

The extra state money subsidized some teacher salaries to keep class sizes smaller in the early grades. The district used to maintain 20-student classes in kindergarten through third grade, but bumped the number up to 25 as the class-size subsidies have been reduced by the state.

Core and more

Four fulltime teachers and one halftime teacher were paid a total of $427,000 to teach fourth grade. Five fifth-grade teachers made a total of $466,000.

Teachers of “support programs” for kindergarten through fifth grade cost the district a total of $220,000 in salary and expenses.

A teacher of third-through-fifth grade science – a veteran teacher at the top of the step and column scale – was paid $98,000.

Her salary was paid by the community’s private fundraising.

“People say we should cut things like three to five science,” Burns said. “We’ve already done that, it’s gone. The fundraising pays for that. If they don’t write a check they don’t get that program.”

A teacher for first-through-fifth grade physical education made $85,000, half of which was covered by community fundraising and a grant from the Beach Cities Health district.

A halftime reading specialist for Hermosa View School, which has students in kindergarten through second grade, was paid $37,000.

The support programs were propped up with $93,000 from the community fundraisers, $44,000 from the Beach Cities Health District and $5,000 from Chevron and other entities.

Middle school

Twelve teachers of core programs for grades six through eight – language arts, social science, math, PE and science – were paid a total of about $1 million.

Two fulltime teachers and one halftime teacher of sixth-through-eighth grade electives – art, speech, Spanish, technology, multimedia and computer skills – were paid a total of $177,000.

The community fundraisers came up with the majority of the money — $107,000 – to pay for the elective programs.

Principals, aides

Among other employees who are certificated to teach, the principals of the two schools were paid a total of $250,000.

Substitute teachers for the schools were paid a total of about $100,000, and the district’s technology director made $124,000.

The head of the special education program made $92,000.

One nearly fulltime special education aide was paid about $62,000 at View School, and two fulltime special education aides were paid a total of about $142,000 at Hermosa Valley School, which has second-through-eighth graders.

Special education

Among non-certificated employees, three View School “inclusion aides,” who help special education students take part in the schools’ main streams of instruction, were paid a total of about $125,000.

Six inclusion aides at Valley School were paid a total of about $187,000.

Substitute aides were paid $10,000, and a special education learning center cost $20,000.

A fulltime occupational therapist, helping special education students with their physical skills, was paid a total of almost $85,000.

One quarter-time aide, for teachers whose salaries are partially subsidized by class-size reduction funding, was paid $3,300. Another quarter-time aide, for disadvantaged students, was paid $9,000.

Two aides for English learners, whose hours add up to about one fulltime worker, made a total of $38,000.

Libraries, health

A three-quarter-time library technician made $35,000 at View School, and another one was paid the same amount at Valley School.

Throughout the district, five fulltime and one halftime maintenance workers were paid a total of $363,000. Substitute workers cost about $16,000.

One fulltime and one quarter-time clerical workers at View School were paid a total of $69,000. Two fulltime clerical workers at Valley School were paid a total of $112,000. Substitutes cost $2,200.

A halftime health aide at View School cost about $15,000, and another one at Valley School cost about $16,000.

The health aides were paid for by the Beach Cities Health District.

After-school camps for students were subsidized by parents. A director cost $64,000 and aides – 3.8 fulltime plus their substitutes – cost a total of about $56,000.

Noon duty aides at the two schools totaled about $58,000.

Administrators

Superintendent Bruce Newlin’s salary and benefits were listed at $183,000, but because he already has retired from public schools, an absence of benefits left his compensation at $163,000.

The business director made $141,000.

Two fulltime and one halftime clerical workers at the district office were paid a total of $183,000.

All five school board members could receive stipends totaling about $8,000 a year, but all have turned down the stipends.

The school district paid $27,000 in retirement benefits.

Pencils, books

District-wide, textbooks cost $84,000 and instructional supplies for teachers cost $120,000.

The community fundraisers pitched in $20,000 for the instructional supplies.

Power, water, gas and telephone utilities cost $200,000 district-wide, and district-wide repairs cost $210,000.

The food service program cost $193,000, with almost all of it covered by the Beach Cities Health District.

Professional and consulting services totaled $1.4 million, including $290,000 for legal fees, election fees, audits, physical inventory and consultant contracting.

Office supplies cost $12,000.

Liability insurance cost $81,000.

Travel and conferences cost $26,000, with Chevron covering $600 of that, and memberships in professional organizations cost $12,000.

The district spent about $1 million on non-instructional special education items such as attorneys’ fees, legally mandated transportation for students who must receive services off-site, and the multi-district SELPA agency that provides instruction for students the individual districts are not equipped for.

More kids

One qualified upside for the Hermosa district is a growing enrollment, which Burns attributes in part to the attractiveness of Hermosa schools.

Based upon birth rates on file with Los Angeles County, Burns expects enrollment to continue growing over the next four years, although not at the steep rate that it did from 2006 to the present.

The upside is more money from the state, which pays Hermosa based on the number of students in the desks, and the downside is increasing pressure on limited campus facilities.

In the geometry of school budgets versus school needs, silver linings can be found in some of the dark clouds. If state officials stop subsidizing smaller class sizes, the resulting larger class sizes would buy more time before educators would have to find more classroom space.

While Burns and his committee-mates pour hour after hour into the budget study, he knows they can only game out the possibilities as best they can. They will not find a crystal ball that sees all the way to Sacramento, and can tell them exactly what they should do.

“At the least, I will be able to go to bed thinking, we’ve given it our best shot,” he said. ER

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