Santa Ana Unified Scrambles to Trim Costs by $17 Million

Times Staff Writer

The looming impact of the state budget deficit came into sharper focus for Santa Ana schools as the board of education met in a special session Monday to contemplate an estimated $17 million in cuts in Orange County's largest school district.

The amount, about 4% of Santa Ana Unified's $440-million annual budget, will have to come from its current fiscal year expenditures, leaving district officials less than six months to find savings or risk ending the year in red ink. "It is a very serious situation we face right now," Supt. Al Mijares told trustees. "We literally have no time to plan for this."

By law, school districts must balance their budgets annually or be taken over by the state. Santa Ana's predicament will be faced by districts throughout California as they begin calculating their portions of $6.2 billion in K-12 education budget cuts proposed Friday by Gov. Gray Davis.

The cuts are aimed at closing a projected $35-billion shortfall over the next 18 months. Under the governor's plan, about $2.2 billion of the K-12 education cuts would come in the fiscal year ending June 30.

"Every day that we wait, it becomes more difficult to balance the budget," Mijares said.

The 62,000-student district already had been operating under a hiring and salary freeze. The district has tapped emergency reserves that total $5.3 million, more than $4 million below state requirements. Part of the $17 million in needed cuts would go to restore district reserves to 2% of its total budget.

On Monday, the board also was presented with other options, including curtailing or eliminating extracurricular activities such as athletics, cutting remedial classes, increasing class sizes in higher grades, eliminating overtime and using administrative employees in place of substitute teachers.

Officials said they were presenting broad options after a first reading of the governor's proposed education budget, and that more detailed plans would emerge in the next few weeks. Because of labor contracts, teachers cannot be laid off before the end of the fiscal year, but other administrative and support positions could be.

The district also will join other local school boards in asking state legislators to ease rigid spending requirements for specific programs and a temporary halt to state-mandated testing.

Board members expressed concern Monday about the long-term effects of such big cuts in a school district with large numbers of poor and non-English-speaking students already struggling with low test scores.

"It is very scary," trustee Audrey Yamagata-Noji said of the budget choices facing the district. "At the same time that there is so much expectation and pressure on test scores, we are basically facing the unknown."

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