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School district aims for 7 percent budget cuts

by Scott Neuffer

David Sando, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Jacks Valley Elementary School, stood before the Douglas County School Board on Friday and pleaded they not cut the gifted and talented program.

“Smart kids drop out just as much as regular kids because they get bored,” he said.

Classmate Emma Brennecke, 11, followed with a similar argument:

“We should not be penalized for learning at a higher level,” she said. “If you cut our funding, you will be leaving children behind.”

The students were two of about 150 people who showed up at a special meeting at the high school to discuss possible budget cuts, the elimination of the gifted and talented program one of the possibilities considered.

The meeting was informational only. The school board will not make final decisions until February, but that did not lessen the urgency among audience members and district officials.

“I have given many presentations in my career, and this may go down as the worst, not the presentation itself, but the subject matter,” said Superintendent Carol Lark. “I am hoping the economy improves, but I am the world’s greatest optimist.”

The school district has been on a roller coaster ride since the state started slashing budgets last year due to falling tax revenues.

The district’s projected best-case scenario for the 2009-2010 fiscal cycle is a 7-percent cut, roughly $2.4 million out of $34.5 million budget, or nearly $3 million when a $582,067 shortfall in the retiree state health subsidy program is taken into account.

The middle-case scenario is a 14-percent cut, $5.4 million, and the worst-case a 21-percent cut, $7.8 million.

Friday’s meeting focused on the best-case scenario, including 20 possible cuts. The elimination of the gifted and talented program, which would save $154,000, drew the most concern from parents.

“My kids struggle daily to overcome boredom,” said Amy Sando, a teacher at Douglas High School and mother of David. “As a taxpayer, I do not spend money for my kids to go to school and sit on their hands.”

Theresa Danna is the mother of a fifth-grader in the gifted and talented program at Scarselli Elementary.

“Research has shown that gifted children in regular classes spend 1/4 to 1/2 of their time in the classroom waiting for others to catch up to their level of competence,” she said.

Others were not as eager to protect the program.

Heidi Downs, a computer servicer for the district, said the gifted and talented program disrupts the classroom by removing a small portion of the population and drawing distance between them and average students.

“You can’t constantly try to make everyone happy,” she said. “If there has to be cuts, this is one of the better ones recommended.”

Board members disagreed.

“Eliminating the gifted and talented program is asking one segment to bear the brunt,” said board member Sharla Hales.

Board president Teri Jamin said cutting the program would work against the district’s mission statement of helping every student achieve his or her full potential.

“The gifted and talented program falls into that area for me,” she said.

The elimination of middle school sports (seventh and eight grade) was also discussed, a measure that would save $75,000.

“My estimate is that 200 to 225 students in seventh and eighth grades participate in sports,” said Michael Rechs, teacher and basketball coach at Carson Valley Middle School. “It is no small impact. Middle school is a battleground. Sometimes you lose the kids. The lessons learned from athletics are strong and valuable.”

Board members suggested alternatives.

“Pay for play is very common throughout the U.S.,” said board member Keith Roman. “The schools could have fundraisers to help out those kids who couldn’t afford it. The main thing is trying to preserve those programs. It’s either that or don’t have them.”

Less controversial measures were discussed as well, such as changing all district faxes to e-fax and changing ink jet printers to copiers, for a savings of $90,000.

But looming throughout the meeting was a possibility much more difficult to swallow: Layoffs.

“Looking at the reality of this, it looks like reductions in force will be needed,” said district Human Resources Director Rich Alexander.

Alexander said the district would do everything in its power to save jobs, leaving vacancies unfilled and combining positions.

“We’d use attrition at first and try to find jobs for everyone,” he said.

But, if more cuts were needed, he said the district would notify unions and begin a process of elimination based on seniority.

Because of declining enrollment, the district could eliminate about 14 certified positions, saving $910,000. About $100,000 could be saved by reducing the number of contract days for certificated, nonmanagement positions, like psychologists. High school and middle school library staff could be partially reduced, saving $70,000.

The prospect of personnel cuts hit home for Lark, who discussed a savings of $180,000 by restructuring and reducing staff at the district office.

Lark and other top administrators have already agreed to freeze their own salaries.

“It is the most painful process I have ever been through,” Lark said. “All of these scenarios are reductions in services.”

Lark said the district will be planning future public meetings to discuss middle-case and worst-case projections.

n Scott Neuffer can be reached at sneuffer@recordcourier.com or 782-5121, ext. 217.