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Schools in Irvine Face Budget Ax

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the wake of an electoral loss, Irvine school officials are bracing for a grim accounting: deep cuts to programs that have helped the district earn a reputation as Orange County’s best.

Among the possibilities are eliminating elementary school science specialists to save $653,000; cutting music lessons in grades four, five and six for $582,000; and laying off a counselor at each high school to trim $120,000.

All told, Irvine Unified School District board members have to choose $4 million worth of cuts from a $6-million list of possibilities.

Earlier this month, Irvine voters narrowly rejected a $95-per-parcel tax aimed at preserving programs in art, music and technology that many other school districts gave up long ago. The inability to muster two-thirds support for the tax made budget-cutting inevitable in a school district widely regarded as Orange County’s best.

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“The community made its decision, and its decision was telling the school district, ‘Don’t offer these programs anymore,’ ” school board President Mike Regele said.

In an effort to solicit parent comment on what should--and shouldn’t--be lost, the school district has posted a list of possible budget cuts on its Web site. In addition, the district is planning two public forums in January.

The tough decisions probably will come the following month. By March 15, the district must let teachers know if they’ll be let go next year.

With everything from the closure of some small schools to the rollback of class-size reductions possible, the mood among many teachers, parents and administrators is “very dark,” Trustee Margie Wakeham said.

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“To come up with $4 million, you have to have an awful lot of things on that list of things to cut,” she said. “At the community forums, we will ask the public to speak to us about what’s important. Unfortunately, there are so many things on that list. It’s not going to be whether you want to cut arts or music--it’s arts and music. There’s going to be something to offend everyone.”

A complicated set of circumstances led up to this budget crisis, said Patricia Clark White, superintendent of the 23,000-student district. Irvine’s recent agricultural history causes the district to receive $95 less per student from the state than the average Orange County district and $100 less than the state average. And much of that money comes with strings attached.

What’s more, Irvine has clung to specialized programs--having a group of teachers well-versed in science, math and arts teach those subjects in elementary school rather than leaving those topics to generalist instructors--that many other schools have abandoned. That adds up to 10% more teachers than most other school districts.

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The result: Expenses vastly exceed revenue, no matter how you slice it.

And slice is just what Irvine has had to do. The district has pared about $12 million from its budget in the 1990s--largely in administration and other functions outside the classroom. Two previous attempts at a parcel tax have received majority approval but fallen short of the necessary two-thirds hurdle.

“It’s heartbreaking,” White said. “We’re dismantling some of the most powerful programs that have contributed to the success of children in this district for nearly 30 years.”

Hanna Hill, a resident who voted against the tax, said she isn’t certain what the district should cut.

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“It wasn’t that I opposed the tax, but that I wanted more information,” said Hill, who does not have children in the school system. “If this problem has been around for years, I thought, ‘Hey, where have you been?’

“Maybe they should go to the Irvine Co., or the many wealthy individuals in this community . . . and ask them for the $4 million.”

A list of the possible cuts being considered by the Irvine Unified School District is available at https://www.iusd.k12.ca.us/.


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