Parents, Del Mar school district staff grapple with budget cuts at town hall forum

By Karen Billing

The Del Mar Union School District’s town hall budget forum on March 11 looked like a giant classroom in the Del Mar Hills Academy multi-use room as teachers, parents and staff members sat at a cluster of tables having difficult discussions, scribbling numbers on paper trying to come up with $2.5 million in cuts.

The workshop format of the forum allowed for 59 participants and an audience of observers to provide the district with their last pieces of input before Superintendent Holly McClurg makes her final budget-trimming recommendations at the March 20 board meeting.

“It is very important that the community play a role,” said Doug Rafner, board president. “We want to keep the lines of communication very much open.”

Rafner said the forum empowered people in the room and made them a part of the process.

The district tapped Dr. Jennifer Jeffries to lead the forum, a former superintendent and now a private consultant and a professor at California State University San Marcos.

“Three of my 10 years as superintendent were conversations like this,” Jeffries said of the challenging time the district is facing.

The forum tables included 59 participants representing stakeholder groups across the district. There were 12 parents, 21 teachers, 21 classified staff members and five district office representatives. They met in three 25-minute rounds of both blended perspective groups and like peers.

The groups were looking at budget recommendations that McClurg made at the Feb. 27 board meeting, her “best thinking” based on what she knows at this time. Her recommendations include $1.2 million in cuts subject to negotiation and $1 million not subject to negotiations, the biggest chunks being increasing class sizes in kindergarten to third grade to 22:1, resulting in $550,000 in savings and five furlough days at $682,500.

In solutions not subject to negotiations, the biggest cuts proposed are five furlough days for classified and management staff at $202,000; eliminating four utility worker positions at $271,000; and eliminating eight instructional aide positions for the English Language Learner program at $101,400.

Possibilities for cuts (subject to negotiation) also included freezing step raises at $485,000; reducing salaries 1 percent for certificated employees at $230,000; and a mix of furlough days.

“Somewhere between these lists has to come the $2.5 million magic moment,” Jeffries said.

In an effort to be completely transparent, the input from participants and observers will be posted online. Through snippets of conversations around the buzzing room, it appeared that small class sizes is valued by both teachers and parents and is an area that people would not like to see impacted.

“No way,” said one parent adamantly about increasing class sizes.

One teacher argued that the 22 number was a soft 22 and that it could be more like 24:1. Parents stated that increasing class sizes would set a precedent from which they could not return and it would represent a commitment to becoming a different district.

Arguments were made that the solutions should be more temporary or reversible and as far away from a direct impact on the children as possible.

Many believed there were creative ways to handle the furloughs, such as targeting days students are not in class, such as teacher prep days before the school year begins and days at the end of the school year. The furlough is basically like a salary reduction, some said, but is the lesser of those two evils.

Restructuring the Extended Studies Curriculum, which would result in a savings of $216,000 was reviewed. While the groups reflected that it would be a little less time in subjects such as art, science, technology, music and PE it would be a less disruptive solution than class size increases.

Another possible solution subject to negotiation is suspending oversize class payment, a savings of $142,000.

“I’ve already given that stipend up,” said one teacher. “There’s not one district in California that pays you extra for one kid…Teachers need to give.”

The teacher said that in her five years in the district, the district could have saved over $700,000 in oversize class stipends.

Another parent looked at one option — not subject to negotiations — of eliminating eight library media specialist positions that would save $250,000.

“That’s a huge number,” the parent said and noted that the role of libraries is changing and will continue to change so the district has an opportunity to rethink what that position means.

As a reflection of how difficult the decisions are, those at the table knew the names of the people who would be impacted by such a cut. The purpose: Attaching a face made it more than just a number on a list to tally up.