RWC Mid-Year Cuts: unfortunately just the beginning

The Redwood City School Board met on 2/10/2010 to discuss recommendations for mid-year cuts. The meeting was very well attended, very long and incredibly emotional. After 1 hour of various unrelated business, we got into the meat of things. Raul repeated his excellent presentation which clearly explains the deplorable financial situation of school districts around our State (If you have not seen it, read it now: Special Board Meeting Mid-Year Cut 2.3.10).  And there were some small updates from the previous week: incredibly, the situation is looking even more grim now and we're projecting a higher shortfall than before due to new information from Sacramento.

In the next section of the meeting people had the chance to address the Board. Many people spoke, concerned about the various cuts currently under way. We heard from teachers, parents, staff and even a principal. There was crying, there was yelling, there were some accusations, but by and large the speakers were polite and made their points eloquently. Most of the comments had to do with the removal of teachers from classrooms in the middle of the year and the impact on kids, specially Kindergartners. 8th graders from McKinley made a statement in support of their math teacher, soon to be laid off.

The Board members listened stoically, saving their responses and commentary for the end. When that time came they asked the administrators for some clarifications, discussed the situation and eventually voted to approve the cuts as proposed. (I left at 11:30PM before the vote took place.)

I don't envy them at all. Their job is to be responsible adults and keep our School District functioning under extremely adverse circumstances. They all pointed out that none of these cuts are good and that we're making them because we really have no choice. And they reminded us that given the financial outlook, these cuts are just the first, a small sample of the cuts that are coming.

Why Mid-Year Cuts?

Basically, because the district has no choice. The district has to maintain a 3% cash reserve to avoid being taken over by the State. Current cash reserves are around 3.69%. The State Controller has warned that California might not have enough money to pay salaries in the months ahead and the district might need some of the reserves for that. And the situation can get even worse if the State decides to impose a mid-year cut retroactively like they did at the end of last year. Cuts made now also mean fewer cuts to be made for next year's budget although this is little consolation as we expect massive cuts then regardless.

So, cuts need to be made. What can get cut? In Redwood City not much. The district has already been cutting every year to reach our current situation where 85% of the budget goes to salaries. At this point any non trivial cuts require reducing staff.

And because of various contracts the district has very little choice of who can get cut in the middle of the year. The jargon here is a bit confusing for outsiders like me, but my understanding is that the district can't lay off teachers when they've been employed for 75% of the school year, which requires cuts to happen very soon. "Temporary teachers" get chosen first. Their positions can be filled with teachers that currently work in the district but outside the classrooms. And it seems we're even lucky in Redwood City that we have other teachers that can take over.

What are the Cuts?

The cuts and some of the rationale is outlined in this letter from the superintendent. You can see them here as well. For each cut, the first number is how much we save this year followed by how much we save the following year:

  • 9 temporary classroom teachers: 261K/764K. Positions to be back filled by credentialed teachers in the district but not currently working within the classroom.

  • 1 accountant: 23K/87K. The administration would pick up extra work.

  • 5 custodians: 67K/256K. Currently school classrooms are on an ABC schedule, cleaned every 3 days. Now they will be cleaned once a week. Restrooms, cafeterias and nurses' rooms will be cleaned every day.

  • Reduce RSP instructional aides to 3 hours: 60K/229K. Impacts 25 employees in the district.

  • 1 office manager at Roosevelt: 23K/55K. This is a vacant position.

  • 1 system manager, position currently vacant: 39K/105K.

  • 1 classroom teacher at Newcomer: 82K/82K.

  • Plato learning program: 25K/25K.

  • Freeze budget for library books and materials: 23K/31K.

The district is still hoping to reduce the work year for all employees by 5 days, for a possible further reduction this year of 1.3 million. Negotiations are at an impasse with the teacher's union. Mediation will begin on March 17th. The union notified the district they won't move until mediation takes place.

The following were originally considered for mid year cuts but were rejected at this point: these will not be cut right now:

  • Increase class sizes to 31 at grades K-3.

  • 1 transportation dispatcher.

  • 10.7 library aides.

Of course, we expect all these to be cut at the end of the year as possibly the deepest cuts in recent memory are expected, their magnitude depending on the level of funding supplied by the State.  As always, our dysfunctional State won't be able to pass the budget in reasonable time and the school district will be required to make worst case cuts in advance of next school year. And now the projected shortfall has grown, to between 4.7 and 13.7 million dollars.

Raul noted that current funding is about the same of 2006/2007 but we now serve 1000 more students. We reduced our budget by 17% in the last three years. Per student funding went from 5500 per year to 4700 per year in 2009/2010. The situation is expected to get worse in the next few years. The public education system is being dismantled in front of our very eyes.

The Governor: protecting education?

The state is facing a 20 billion budget gap over the next few months. This number goes up and down every day, mostly up. Problems with the State's retirement system might add 2.6 billion to the deficit, for example. Until the State finalizes its budget, the real impact on school districts is unclear. And while districts don't have the luxury to wait for the legislature and the Governor to be done, this is what we know about the Governor's plan, according to Raul's presentation:

  • 8.5 billion in cuts including 2.4 billion in health and human services and 1.2 billion in prisons. Interestingly, the 1.2 billion prison cut was proposed last year but not adopted.

  • 4.5 billion in gimmicks and accounting tricks. For example, by changing the gasoline sales tax to an excise tax, it excludes 1.6 billion from the base amount available to fund education via Prop 98.

  • 6.9 billion expected from the Federal Government. The Governor expects the Federal Government to fully fund those unfunded federal mandates, claiming that California is not getting its fair share.

Cuts to the social welfare net, more gimmicks, and believing in the tooth fairy. We can safely expect many of these "creative" approaches to fail, a larger deficit than expected, less money for the Prop 98 calculation resulting in huge new cuts for schools.

Interestingly, Prop 98 has a Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). The Governor has ignored COLA in most previous year, but this year, miraculously, he's going to honor it. Before you start writing him letters expressing your gratitude note that this year, for the first time, COLA is negative. That's right, cost of living is down 0.38% and the Governor includes a 0.38% cut to education. For Redwood City this is a mere 200K, coincidentally the cost of keeping the Music program at the middle schools.

A failed state

While it would have been nice to have a parcel tax in Redwood City to shield us from the draconian cuts that are coming, last year's Measure E would have raised 2.3 million a year, a fraction of the shortfall we're currently facing.

The solution needs to come from the State. And the State has become ungovernable due to the super majority requirement to pass any budget. The super majority requirement sounds good in principle but it quickly becomes a tyranny of the minority, specially with an intransigent minority oblivious to the needs of the people.

Here's an illuminating Madison quote from the Federalist Papers, courtesy of Ira Ruskin's email list:

"To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision), is, in its tendency, to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser...This is one of those refinements which, in practice, has an effect the reverse of what is expected from it in theory. The necessity of unanimity in public bodies, or of something approaching towards it, has been founded upon a supposition that it would contribute to security. But its real operation is to embarrass the administration [of government], to destroy the energy of the government...In those emergencies of a nation, in which the goodness or badness, the weakness or strength of its government, is of the greatest importance, there is commonly a necessity for action. The public business must, in some way or other, go forward. If a pertinacious minority can control the opinion of a majority, respecting the best mode of conducting it, the majority, in order that something may be done, must conform to the views of the minority; and thus the sense of the smaller number will overrule that of the greater, and give a tone to the national proceedings. Hence, tedious delays; continual negotiation and intrigue; contemptible compromises of the public good. And yet, in such a system, it is even happy when such compromises can take place: for upon some occasions things will not admit of accommodation; and then the measures of government must be injuriously suspended, or fatally defeated. It is often, by the impracticability of obtaining the concurrence of the necessary number of votes, kept in a state of inaction."

We need to reform our current system. And not only the 2/3 super majority requirement. The initiative process, originally conceived as a way to return politics to the grass roots has become an industry, with firms guaranteeing anything can be put on the ballot given enough amounts of money. Propositions are confusing and unintelligible to the average voter. In the end, the side with the most money to pay for ads can make anything go through.

One way to address these problems is with a constitutional convention. A group called Repair California launched a grass roots campaign to add two initiatives to the November ballot to cause a constitutional convention to happen. Unfortunately the campaign has been put on hold as of February 10 due to lack of adequate funds. They claim they need significant new money by March 1st to restart the campaign, but the letter does not seem to be an appeal for funds from citizens. That is, if the letter was a call for donations from ordinary citizens to get things started I would donate in an instant... Hopefully they can get things going again.

If we can't do away with the 2/3 requirement another option would be to vote some Republicans out of office. This is hard due to district boundaries. Calling their offices to demand changes in their position is also ineffective as we are not their constituents. Maybe we can call and threaten them to fund their Democratic opposition in the next election?

Only in Redwood City?

This keeps coming up: why do other districts seem impervious to cuts? What's the deal with Palo Alto, Woodside, Menlo Park, and other of our surrounding districts? They're "Basic Aid" districts while we are a "Revenue Limit" district. If you've been around school funding discussions you know what this means. If you're new, your eyes are probably glazing over just about now. If you want to understand why our surrounding districts don't seem to suffer like we do, read on:

The State guarantees a minimum level of education funding. In the 2009/2010 year it was around $6000 per student. If the amount of money the district makes in property taxes divided by the number of kids in the schools is less that that minimum guarantee the State makes up the difference. This is a "Revenue Limit" district, like Redwood City. The minimum guarantee per student is the key here, and it's set by the State based on revenue collected into the general fund using complex formulas established by Proposition 98. Since most general fund revenue comes from income taxes and incomes depends on the state of the economy, funding in "Revenue Limit" districts is volatile and we can expect the guarantee to stay low while the economy remains in trouble.

But what happens if the total amount of property taxes divided by the number of kids is greater than the minimum guarantee? Then that lucky district gets to keep all the money and only gets to take "Basic Aid" from the State, hence the name. A district like Woodside, for example, with expensive houses and a small population always does much better than the state minimum. I don't know exactly what it comes down to for them, but it's probably around $12000, double the funding per kid.

In Redwood City we have the unique "privilege" of being surrounded by "Basic Aid" districts. While in the rest of California school districts can despair together, here you can walk a mile to the side and visit an alternate reality where public education is still thriving. And of course, to make matters worse, those districts have large parcel taxes and a population that donates large amounts to their education foundation.

Now what?

Things will get worse in the next few years. While we fight for parcel tax reform or wait for the constitutional convention for California movement to restart we need to focus on our immediate needs.

The Redwood City Education Foundation is launching an emergency fund raising initiative to save music in the middle schools.

The Redwood City Education Foundation (RCEF)  invites concerned parents and community members to join us at our kickoff meeting for the Music! Maestro campaign. This campaign will raise funds to support some or all of the instrumental music program in 2010/11. As you may be aware, the district has this program slated for potential elimination next year, due to state education budget cuts.

We are relying on music parents, staff, and community volunteers to help us manage and run the campaign. The campaign is structured to tap all revenue streams, including local businesses, corporations and foundations, and community members.

Your attendance at this meeting is critical. We need your input, time, energy, creativity, and inspiration to support the campaign's goals and hit the ground running at this vital moment. Please come and make sure next year’s students benefit from this invaluable program.

Time & Date: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 7:00pm

Location: Kennedy Middle School, Room #312
Kennedy Middle School is located at the corner of Connecticut and Goodwin. The music room is easily reached from the parking areas located near that the same corner.  The door will be open from the lot into the music room  (entrances to both lots are on Goodwin).

Go to the meetings. And most importantly, give money to the foundation. Only the foundation can fund programs district wide. It's fine to give to your child's school but it's just as good (if not better) to give to the Foundation that benefits every child in Redwood City.

It will definitely help to get the parcel tax reform initiative on the ballot. If you have not signed, do it now, and take a few sign up sheets to work and gather signatures. The School Board announced in the meeting that it's legally allowed to gather signatures in school grounds as long as the kids are not the ones soliciting them. Look for people gathering signatures at your school and offer to help them.

The city government and our fellow residents need to understand how dire the situation is. The School Board is hard at work on this right now, letting everyone know what's going on. And they report that people are actually surprised to find out, as our school buildings look clean and modern. You can help by telling everyone you meet what's going on.

And finally let's try not to despair. The cuts are draconian, the situation will get worse for a few years before it gets better, but we'll still have safe, clean schools, dedicated teachers and staff and kids willing to learn. As we go back to a more basic education offering let's remember all the things we're loosing and fight to be able to restore them in the future.


  1. Another fabulous summary. Thank you.

  2. You are a master of distillation. Thank you for the excellent summary.

  3. Thanks so much for your summary.
    Oddly enough, nothing posted by the district mentions that the board voted to remove a fully credentialed teacher at Roosevelt from a full classroom and move her to a spot to be vacated by a temporary teacher at Clifford. The board voted to merge the kindergartens at Roosevelt into two classes with 25+ children. And I'd like to mention that our school didn't even hear that this was even on the agenda for that night's meeting until 4:00 that afternoon. I've asked for, and still not received, a list of which schools specifically have been hit by the cuts. I'm hoping that the district office is more forthcoming with the details of cuts to the schools.

  4. Brilliant summary. Please continue with this and circulate it widely. One small addition to the section about reserves would be useful, however.

    The state is offering the option to temporarily reduce reserves from 3% to 1%. This offers one option for a partial temporary solution. AND it offers significant additional risk. But it is one of the things that should be on the table.

    The comment about the ambush suffered by Roosevelt is appropriate. This is a time where absolute transparency is the only way to go.

  5. Hernan,

    Great job, and thanks for all the other info as well regarding the basics of school funding. Your blog is a great service to our community!


  6. Nice summary, but you're more optimistic than I.

    Hospitals and prisons close shop due to budgets, you really think the there's a bailout for RWC schools?

    Those that are capable of donate significant funds to the foundation are doing it; the the private schools their kids are enrolled in. Yes, eventually a 55% to pass a parcel tax but you think that will fix the long term problems? The admin. is too shortsighted to make a difference, just throwing more money at the system until they are off th board or retire.

  7. RWC school district is a sinking ship with no bailout in sight. Cutting music, that's shows the priorities of the admin. , what about the admin overhead and the poorly managed investments?

    Anyone with kids in the district is concerned and looking at private schools or moving to another district. The tax revenue will continue to decline and more cuts to come until the State takes over. Yes, someone will eventually see how poorly managed this district is and clean house or perhaps your Democratic leaders will distribute the wealth more with more of your tax dollars. The homeowners who are paying top tax dollars and slaving away working to try to give their kids a decent education are the ones hurting the most.


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