Teachers Fear New Round of Budget Cuts : Education: They say trimming $2 million may increase class size and reduce instructional materials throughout the 17,700-student Conejo Valley district.

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Plans to cut $2 million from the Conejo Valley Unified School District budget have touched off teacher concerns that classroom sizes might be increased and that some classroom teaching materials might be abandoned.

The 17,700-student district, which has already been hit by almost $7 million in budget cuts in the last two years, must trim the additional $2 million from its $75-million budget for the coming year.

This time, essential classroom programs and policies could be on the block because most extras have already been cut, officials said.

"Everyone is just kind of numb right now," said Jerry Morris, a Thousand Oaks High School history teacher and president of the 552-member Unified Assn. of Conejo Teachers. "After last year, we're waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Everybody is just about at the max," Morris added. He said his class sizes averaged about 30 when he began teaching at Thousand Oaks 20 years ago. Now he sees an average of 35 students in his classes, he said.

"We're hitting at the core of what education is all about now," Morris said. "It's getting down to the bone."

Sarah Hart, the district's assistant superintendent for business services, agreed that the latest cuts will have a greater impact on the classroom than in previous years.

"This year is going to be worse because we've already cut out so many of the optional or auxiliary programs," she said.

The district will recommend cuts in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, teachers have proposed a cost-of-living pay increase to launch negotiations on a new three-year contract. The present contract expires at the end of June. The district's Board of Education responds in two weeks to the teachers' proposal.

"Our thinking is, if the district makes cuts that are going to result in cost savings, there should be some money in there for teachers to get a (cost-of-living adjustment)," Morris said.

The teachers received a 20% pay hike spread over the last three years, during which time the district's spending grew 10% more than its income, Supt. William Seaver said.

"The largest segment of our budget is our teachers," Seaver said.

The phased increases brought the district's salaries into parity with those offered in surrounding areas, Morris said. As it stands, a beginning teacher makes about $24,000 per year, while top scale after 24 years is $51,000, Morris said.

"Things have eroded to the point where very few people coming out of college want to go into teaching," Morris said. "That wasn't always the case."

Salaries and benefits for the teachers, nurses and librarians represented by the union account for 58% of the district's spending, Hart said.

The district found itself in a bind the past two years when the state did not increase funding to cover inflation, as costs rose and the district was locked into teacher pay raises, Hart said.

The district has been dipping into reserves to fund services for the last few years, but next year, a $1-million deficit is projected and the district must restore $1 million to its empty savings account, Hart said.

The state recommends that districts keep a reserve fund of 3% of the total budget, which would be $2 million for Conejo Valley Unified. But school officials plan to keep only half that amount in reserve, Hart said.

"It really is a terrible thing to have to make cuts, but there's nothing you can do about it," board member Dorothy Beaubien said. "If you don't have the money, you don't have the money."

Across-the-board staffing cuts helped the district trim its budget the last two years, Hart said.

"It's been just a gradual decrease of services," Hart said. "As our ability to provide services continues to decrease each year, more and more people are affected."

The first to go were extra teachers, who had helped to alleviate classroom overload by assisting individuals and small groups of students. Janitors, clerical and administrative workers, and school counselors were also cut.

Last year, the district began charging parents up to $450 for student bus transportation, but the program still is not covering costs, Hart said. The board this spring could decide to eliminate busing except for special education, or change the pricing to encourage more participation, Hart said.

Teachers recognize that the school board has tried to keep cuts away from the classroom whenever possible, Morris said.

"The district now is in a tight bind," Morris said. "There really is not that much to go after. That's the dilemma."

The district's 19 Parent Teacher Assn. units frequently get the call to help when a program or project is jeopardized by a lack of money, said Betty Roark, president of the Conejo Council of PTAs.

Last year, parents in the district donated 124,779 hours of service to the schools, Roark said. But volunteers can become just as overburdened as teachers, she said.

"How many hours can people give? It really is that education has to be important to legislators in Sacramento," Roark said.

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