Ben Dahan news editor
On Feb. 17, the Board of Education held its second study session regarding the recommended budget cuts of up to $5 million for the coming school year. This was a follow up from the first meeting, held on Feb. 9.
The discussion about budget cuts originates from the district’s current spending deficit of $4.6 million and its currently projected path towards fiscal insolvency, where it will no longer have any reserve money to pay for its deficit spending.
“These [budget cuts] are systematic changes that I believe will require a lot of discussion and serious discovery,” Superintendent Dr. Michael Bregy said.
Board president Mel Spitz, an ardent proponent of making $5 million in cuts, has reaffirmed his belief of the necessity to do so.
“However much we don’t reduce next year will be that much more of a burden for us in the following years,” Spitz said.
The meeting began with a period of public comment, as Bill Bradbury, Chairman of the Performing Arts department, and a concerned parent expressed their concerns over the possibility of reducing music classes at the elementary schools, which was brought up at the previous meeting.
“There’s been such progress made over this time to develop these instrumental music programs that it really would be a step back to cut anything at this point.” Bradbury said. “Obviously the less [number of teachers], the less opportunities for students to pursue this interest and subject.”
Student board member Sam Schwartz later expressed his support for the music program, saying he had greatly benefitted from it as a student and that the robust music program is what distinguishes BHUSD from surrounding districts.
“Instrumental music is a program we shouldn’t cut at all; performing arts make this district what it is,” Schwartz said.
The district enlisted School Services of California inc (SSC), a premier independent consulting firm specializing in school finance in California, to review its situation. After the public comment, CEO Ron Bennett and Matt Phillips, CPA, delivered a presentation.
They identified that the district’s multi-year projections show that the district’s reserves, or leftover funds, will be below the state-required three percent of expenditure, and well below the average of 25 percent for basic aid districts across California, by 2019-20.
The only way that the district maintain a reserve of over 20 percent at the current rate of expenditure is if the revenue from property taxes growth, calculated by the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office based on a county average, is at a rate higher than projected or the historical average of seven percent.
SSC analyzed the Salary Increase Formula, approved by the board in 2013, which increases employee salaries and benefits using a percentage (55 percent) of the increase of tax revenue from the previous year.
They also looked at the K-8 school configuration, where BHUSD has four K-8 schools instead of one dedicated middle school. According to Phillips, though this model is much more expensive per student, leads to less elective offerings and is difficult to scale with staffing, it has widespread community support and certain advantages, such as preserving student’s “age of innocence” and creating neighborhood schools.
Nevertheless, Spitz believes that transitioning to a different school configuration “should be a part of the discussion.”
Board member Noah Margo shared this sentiment, citing the possibility that a different configuration can solve a lot of the current problems and even “launch us in a more positive direction as a district.”
“I want to know everything before we make a decision,” Margo said.
After SSC had concluded its presentation, with no questions by the board, it was the cabinet’s turn to speak to the board and audience.
They again underscored the financial predicament the district is in, charging the board with reducing expenditures and offering them a series of scenarios with which to achieve that.
“These [scenarios of cuts] are not an all-or-nothing approach. There are trade-offs to everything,” Bregy said
Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jennifer Tedford brought up the challenges that come with scheduling, particularly the declining enrollment, the various levels of certain classes, such as honors, regular or special education and the K-8 configuration.
The cabinet also identified that the district’s biggest per student expenditure goes to teacher salaries, which is true for most school districts. However, BHUSD’s expenditure on teacher salaries exceeds that of the comparable surrounding districts, believed by the administration to be caused by the declining enrollment but maintenance of the same size teaching staff.
“The amount of salaries is not the issue. The issue [is] the salary formula and the amount of paychecks, [they] must be looked at,” Board member Howard Goldstein said.
The second largest per student expenditure goes to contractual services, which Board member Isabel Hacker would like to reduce, particularly among legal fees, despite Chief Administrative Officer La Tanya Kirk-Carter’s insistence that they are in line with what other comparable districts pay.
The district administration and the board both seek to receive additional community input before the decisions are made, with suggestions of a community survey and of holding town hall style meetings.
High school teacher Lisa Dickens, speaking on behalf of the Beverly Hills Education Association(BHEA), the teacher’s labor union, urged the board to be transparent and to seek community involvement, especially with the union.
“We just ask the district work with us and take the time to consult with us in what goes,” Dickens said. “We’d just like to be a part of the conversation going forward so that we can make sure these cuts are made in as minimal way as possible and as far away from the classroom as possible.”
Though it is the board and administration’s stated intention to limit the impact on the education the students receive as much as possible, Spitz expressed his inflexibility in that regard.
“I believe that we can make the cuts we need to make and not impact our educational program,” Spitz said. “At this point, I won’t support cutting our educational programs.”