Budget cuts, declining enrollment loom over schools

Uncertainty about the state's 2011 budget means that the La Cañada Unified School District's own 2011 budget likely will change by the end of the year.

That's the message delivered by the district's governing board when the district's first-interim financial report was presented at Tuesday night's board meeting.

"These are projections, not predictions," Stephen Hodgson, LCUSD's financial consultant, said of the report.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for a special session on Nov. 11 to revisit the state budget, which is projected to lead to a $25.4 billion gap in spending in the next year and a half. The ongoing budgetary uncertainty, and the fact that local districts receive substantial funding from the state, mean that the district won't be able to predict its own budget until the state's budget picture becomes clearer, Hodgson said.

La Cañada Unified officials fear public education will be cut yet again during the governor's special assembly, which is scheduled to meet on Dec. 6.

"The problem is, we have less than full confidence in what the budget is currently promising us," Hodgson said.

The local school district is already working with $4.492 billion less than what has been promised by the state. That amount, district officials said, totals the difference between what the state has promised in its budgets the last several years and what it actually has delivered. The result amounts to a 17.963% deficit.

Coming face-to-face with these numbers elicited anger from some board members.

School board member Cindy Wilcox said the district is being "ripped off" by the state government.

"I resent the Legislature can send us this budget and we drink it up like Kool-Aid and put it in like it's real, only to find out a few weeks later that it's not," Wilcox said.

But budgetary uncertainty isn't the only problem muddying the district's financial waters. Declining enrollment also threatens to tighten LCUSD purse strings.

This year, the district projects to graduate 382 students while bringing in just 187 new students.

The result of this net loss of 195 students would amount to a financial shortfall of $275,445.30. This is based on the fact that the state contributes $1,412.54 in Average Daily Attendance funding for every fulltime student enrolled in the district.

This is not one-year problem, as La Cañada Unified estimates its student population will continue to shrink. It was 4,023 in 2008-09 and is projected to be 3,516 in the 2013-14 school year.

"Next year, we will have to reduce our budget by six full-time teaching positions to address the drop in students," he said.

Expectations are that the district will need to cut 19 full-time staff positions over the next three years to account for the enrollment drop.

The outlook could be worse if not for new, one-time federal funding coming into La Cañada Unified. President Barack Obama's Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistant Act, signed on Aug. 10, will send $1.2 billion to school districts across the country. LCUSD projects it will receive $757,957 from the act for this year only.

Funding from the legislation would be used to retain staff positions that may otherwise be cut to reduce the district's deficit.

This could be the last federal funding La Cañada Unified receives for years to come, after the district received $1.359 million in federal funding in 2008-09 and $1.151 million in 2009-10.

"I don't anticipate any more federal dollars coming in the foreseeable future," Hodgson said.

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