By Victoria Martinez

Faced with an 8.5 percent decline in student enrollment, the school board in the Buellton Union School District on March 7 approved budget reductions equivalent to one and a quarter classified staff positions in addition to the three and a half teaching and counseling positions approved Feb. 14.

According to Superintendent Randal Haggard, the enrollment loss, which includes the graduation of an unusually large eighth-grade class in June, has led to a revenue loss that is expected to be more than $400,000.

The Buellton Union School District (BUSD) receives state funds on the basis of average daily attendance, so “when we lose students, we lose funding,” Haggard said.

“We essentially lost 8 percent of our population and the revenue that comes with them,” Haggard explained.

The district also expects additional staffing reductions in subsequent years based on current and projected enrollment numbers.

As of March 1, the district had 568 students enrolled in its Oak Valley Elementary and Jonata Middle schools, 45 fewer than on the same date in 2017.

More than 80 people attended the March 7 meeting, including faculty members whose positions have been approved for reduction and parents with anecdotes as to how their students have been directly affected by the counseling and student intervention programs, both of which will see reductions in services due to the budget cuts.

School counselor Jennifer Tatum said she has served more than 100 students this year and that recent shootings around the country are a strong justification for keeping a full-time counselor at Buellton’s two schools.

“Does cutting teachers, classroom aides, and vital programs make sense?” Tatum asked.

Jamie Matthews, both a parent at Oak Valley and a teacher in Lompoc, opposed the 20 percent cut to the coordinator of student intervention, noting that Buellton’s highly regarded intervention program helped her son learn to read after he had struggled significantly.

“It takes a village,” Matthews said.

Parent Rebecca Letts said that all three of her children have benefitted from interventions in the early grades and she fears that reductions in those services would have a negative impact in a number of ways.

“Those interventions, that atmosphere is part of what makes this school fantastic,” Letts emphasized.

At the meeting, the board approved reducing classified staff by two part-time instructional aides and a part-time custodian for a savings of $42,000 next school year. The February certified reductions of two and a half classroom teachers and partial reductions in staffing for physical education, counseling, and student intervention are expected create a continuing savings of $220,000.

Haggard praised the audience members for their participation and called the meeting “a really impressive lesson in democracy.” However, he also pointed to a financial analysis from the Santa Barbara County Education Office.

SBCEO’s Assistant Superintendent of Administrative Services Bill Ridgeway stated in the analysis of the district’s recently proposed collective bargaining agreement that without large budget reductions in both 2018-19 and 2019-20, the district would become fiscally insolvent in 2019-20, meaning the district would not be maintaining required cash reserves and would then be facing an entirely new set of problems and the partial loss of local control.

Haggard also addressed several avenues the district is both waiting on and investigating as it looks for ways to deal with the budget deficit. For example, the district is closely watching state Assembly Bill 2808, which would dramatically increase the per-pupil funding the district receives.

The district also remains in discussions with Vista Del Mar Union School District about the possibility of Vista De Las Cruces School sending its seventh- and eighth-graders to Jonata Middle School because of the Gaviota school’s own budget woes. However, Haggard said that even though the door is open from Buellton’s perspective, he believes there’s a less than 50 percent chance of this scenario coming to fruition for the 2018-2019 school year.

Haggard also commented on the desire of some teachers and staff to establish a foundation to support educational programs at the school similar to Solvang School’s education foundation Solvang Arts and Music. He noted that longtime Buellton resident Judith Dale had established a Buellton Education Foundation years ago and she’d be open to talking with interested parties if they wanted more information.

The board is also waiting on a study about the feasibility of putting a parcel tax before voters on a ballot. Parcel taxes are commonly seen as one of the few ways for school districts in California to increase revenue.

“It’s a creative solution, but an uphill sell,” Haggard said, and the district would consider pursuing a parcel tax only if the study shows a high percentage of the community supports the idea.

Last month, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approved putting a proposed $79 parcel tax for Santa Barbara’s Hope School District on the June election ballot, which would be expected to raise $360,000 annually.

BUSD teachers at the meeting shared their frustrations about the specific cuts being made, noting the potential negative impacts to student success and safety. They urged the board to reconsider the approved reductions by taking recent retirements into account, allowing for job sharing between teachers, and considering cuts at the district office level for both the Buellton district and the Santa Ynez Valley Special Education Consortium, for which BUSD is the fiscal agent and incurs increased administrative costs because of this responsibility.

Teachers have also shared three versions of school staffing with the board since a fall budget workshop was conducted.

“We are very hopeful these staffing ideas will be taken into account as we believe each of these options serves the students better than the proposed staffing we received at the Budget Summit,” teacher Kelley Carter said.

During the meeting, Board President Elaine Alvarado noted that the board could rescind the approved notices, but that state Education Code dictated the timelines.

“We have to be fiscally responsible. We have to do our due diligence,” Alvarado emphasized.

After the meeting, Haggard acknowledged high administrative costs at the district level but said that previous reorganizations such as the board’s decision to hire a full-time superintendent and one principal for both schools in 2016 created substantial cost savings for the district. He also said that a fiscal analysis related to the special education consortium is already underway. However, much of the district’s business does not decrease when enrollment does.

“So much is compliance-driven, and you must do it all,” Haggard explained.

Haggard hopes the budget will improve but said the district is looking ahead at the financial impact of the decreased enrollment.

“There are details to be considered in the impact to programs that the board will continue to discuss in the future,” Haggard said.

Any affected staff members must be notified of the possibility by March 15, though no reductions will be finalized until May 15.