Enrollment may be silver lining

GLENDALE — An unexpected boost in enrollment offered Glendale Unified School District board members a glimmer of hope Wednesday as they braced for midyear cuts to state funding for education.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his proposal Thursday to cut $2.5 billion from education, a move that, if approved, would force districts throughout the state into desperate positions, officials said.

While unfortunate, the cuts to California’s schools are unavoidable, state Director of Finance Michael Genest said.

“I think if the governor could, he would exempt schools,” Genest said. “But I think there is no way to do that.”

Although reductions at the state level will affect the school district, the hike in enrollment should bring in useful funds, Chief Business and Financial Officer Eva Rae Lueck said.

There are 358 more students enrolled in Glendale schools than the 26,451 originally projected, a change that could yield about $2 million in added revenues to the district, Lueck said.

The change, which amounts to about 1% of the district’s general operating fund, would be added to next year’s budget unless the state restructures its current method for calculating district funds based on attendance figures, Lueck said.

But the enrollment jump will not cover the gap, especially in light of Thursday’s news.

As board members looked for ways to add more students and slash district costs, they placed an urgency on suggestions for budget cuts but hesitated to put specific items on the chopping block.

While asking about the financial strain caused by class-size reduction programs and healthcare costs, board Clerk Chuck Sambar approached the topics with caution.

“I’m just bringing it up as a discussion item for the future, not that I’m proposing or recommending any of this,” Sambar said.

The budget crisis and likely cuts to the school district were keeping board Vice President Mary Boger up at night, she said. But she could not think of a budget area that could be evaluated for possible savings and asked her colleagues and district staff members for help.

“I would really appreciate it if we could see sooner than later where we’re going to be able to cut,” Boger said.

With no new ideas to add to his suggestion two weeks ago to explore the costs of healthcare benefits, board member Greg Krikorian focused instead on his concerns about increased expenses.

Water and electricity costs should be major areas of concern for the district because they are both likely to increase dramatically, Krikorian said. He predicted the price of utilities would go up, while state conservation requirements would simultaneously increase, putting a crunch on the district.

Krikorian also questioned the timing of teachers filing collective grievances that forced the district to pay legal fees.

“Right now isn’t the time to be doing this because it creates added expenses,” Krikorian said. Citing information from Lueck’s report that showed the district’s special programs, including an emphasis on foreign languages like Armenian, were responsible for drawing more students to Glendale schools, said board member Nayiri Nahabedian, adding that officials should focus on even modest increases in enrollment, from inside and outside the district.

“A handful of kids make a huge difference in our budget,” Nahabedian said.

She expressed concern about the district enrollment, which has dropped every year since 2003, when there were 29,749 students in public schools, and called for a study of where students go after leaving Glendale schools and why.

It was important, Nahabedian said, to examine programs that are successful in attracting new students, but she added that it was just as important to find out why other students were getting away.

“The other piece of that is to take a look and see how we can capture more students so that we can impact our enrollment in additional ways,” she said.

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