Spring Cuts Bring Bleak Fall Mood to Schools : Budgets: Trims made months ago are coming to life while the fiscal feud continues between the governor and the state schools superintendent.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The school year ahead will bring uneasy financial times for Ventura County school districts.

As the county's schools begin their first full week of classes today, districts face a litany of financial woes and months of bleak fiscal uncertainty because of state budget cuts and an impasse over the level of state funding.

Last spring, to head off financial disaster, many districts began trimming their budgets, most of which were finalized over the summer. This fall, the effect of some of those cuts will come to life.

* In the Ventura Unified School District, two principals are doing double duty, each taking on administrative tasks at two schools.

* In the Oxnard Union High School District, administrators are looking for ways to pay for a new $100,000 driving simulator that was purchased last year, before funding for driver training was cut from the state budget.

* In the Conejo Valley Unified School District in Thousand Oaks, officials have suspended driver training altogether and also have eliminated a $30,000 fund for emergency school maintenance.

* In Camarillo's Pleasant Valley Elementary School District, officials will spend close to $1 million in lottery funds that are normally put in the bank, where they collect interest, and are spent the following school year.

* Santa Paula Elementary School District officials have eliminated 10 teaching positions and a $10,000 morale program that provided employees with on-campus creature comforts, such as microwave ovens, to boost morale.

"It's going to be a very interesting year," said Richard Welcher, assistant superintendent for business services at the Ventura Unified School District.

Much of the uncertainty stems from a battle over whether public schools will receive a 4.76% increase in state funding as passed by the Legislature, or the 3% increase that Gov. George Deukmejian later approved in a budget that slashed school funding.

Ventura County districts took a prudent approach and budgeted for the 3% increase.

"No one knows what they're going to have to work with," Welcher said. "So you're working with the worst-case scenario."

Although state Controller Gray Davis has issued checks to school districts based on the higher increase, many Ventura County district officials said they received a letter last week from Deukmejian warning them not to spend the difference between the two amounts.

"It's an amazing political battle that the governor is waging against the educational community, we think," said Robert Brown, Oxnard Union High School District business manager. "It's evident that it's a battle between the governor and Bill Honig," the state superintendent of public instruction.

District officials said it may be January--when a new governor takes office and the Legislature reconvenes--before the issue is resolved.

In the meantime, schools must live with the cuts that boards and district staffs have made to offset the projected loss in state revenue.

In some districts, those cuts include the elimination of teaching and administrative positions. Santa Paula's elementary schools will save an estimated $340,000 with the elimination of 10 teaching positions.

And Ventura Unified may save more than $100,000 by not filling the positions of two principals who retired last year from smaller schools, and assigning other principals to administrative duties at those schools in addition to their own, Assistant Supt. Joseph Spirito said.

Other districts curtailed in-house staff training and travel to educational conferences and cut down on maintenance and upkeep of aging facilities.

Officials of districts across the county stressed that they made an effort to keep the cuts away from the classroom, concentrating instead on administration and maintenance.

The effort to keep the effect of cuts away from children has not always been successful, however.

Earlier this year, Simi Valley Unified School District officials had to make about $4 million in cuts, including a reduction in nursing services, the elimination of assistant principal positions at secondary schools and the transfer of junior high school librarians to classroom teaching positions.

"Unfortunately, the students will feel the impact," said Cathi Vogel, associate superintendent. "This year is exceptional in that we had to make cuts that directly impact the instructional programs."

But, Vogel added, "Any cut, made directly or indirectly, affects students."

For now, the belt-tightening appears to have postponed serious financial problems for the county's schools.

Still, potential funding problems loom in the immediate future.

At high schools, officials are lamenting the apparent loss of funding for the driver training program, which was eliminated in the Deukmejian budget.

"I would think that's an extremely important program for society in general, not just for the schools," said Assistant Supt. Gary Davis of the Oxnard Union High School District. "If it's not funded, we just don't know what impact it would have on youthful drivers."

Meanwhile, behind-the-wheel training in Oxnard high schools is on hold until the district hears from state education officials whether the program will be funded, Davis said.

The board of the Conejo Valley Unified School District has already voted to suspend its driver training program. It will vote this week on whether to arrange through the district's adult school program to make the training available again--but at a cost to parents of about $125, Supt. William R. Seaver said.

The program is also on hold in Simi Valley and other school districts.

In the Oxnard high school district, the budget cuts will also be felt in teachers' pocketbooks. The district bases teachers' raises on the amount of the cost-of-living increase granted by the state, and because the increase is less than expected, teachers' raises will also be less, Business Manager Robert Brown said.

To add to the problems, Ventura County districts are also fighting a $3.1-million fee that the county might impose for collecting property taxes. Many school officials plan to voice their opposition to the fee at a County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.

And another source of school revenue, lottery funds, also might decrease. Lottery sales have been off by as much as 25% in recent months, although a quarterly report on lottery revenues to schools will not be out until Sept. 30.

Because of state funding decreases, the Pleasant Valley Elementary School District will for the first time be forced to spend lottery revenue immediately, no matter how much it receives, Supt. Shirley Carpenter said.

"We're making it this year without having to make any cuts," Carpenter said. "But if we spend the lottery dollars this year as they come in, they won't be there to spend the following year. That's when we could run into some problems and where we may have to make cuts. . . . That's scary."

She said the district's maintenance program is already stretched thin. Five of its 12 schools are at least 30 years old.

"People may think we're crying wolf," Carpenter said. "But no matter the district, you can drive around and take a look. Old buildings are falling apart. . . . We have been in a terrific financial crunch for so many years that the only place we can cut is facilities."

For district officials, there are few bright spots in the financial picture for schools.

"We don't really see any relief in the budget picture," said Spirito of the Ventura district, who predicted that there might be hard times for the next four to five years.

"I think it's going to be a very interesting spring to say the least," said Seaver of the Conejo district. "And I'm not particularly optimistic about it."

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