Jessica Cejnar / Friday, May 8 @ 3:50 p.m. / Education, Emergencies

Del Norte Unified Braces for $4 Million Cut in State Funding; California K12 Schools May Lose $18.3 Billion Due to COVID-19

Families line up outside Lighthouse Community Church on March 19 as Del Norte Unified School District staff and volunteers give out meals and work. Photo: Jessica Cejnar

Though the information is preliminary, Del Norte Unified School District may lose $4 million in state funding next year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its superintendent says.

Citing a May 7 fiscal update from the California Department of Finance, Superintendent Jeff Harris said the district may lose up to $1,700 in state funding per student. With roughly 3,700 student enrolled, DNUSD’s 2020-2021 budget could take a hit of more than $4 million, he said. That projection didn’t include funding for Uncharted Shores Academy or the Del Norte County Office of Education.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re not the only one in this boat,” Harris told trustees Thursday. “It hasn’t been carved in stone, but that’s what they said this morning. Next week we’ll be hearing the governor’s May revise. The week after that various financial groups will be taking that information and shredding it and putting it back together, discussing what it means.”

District administration will also discuss its financial outlook with the Board of Trustees, bargaining units, staff and community, Harris said.

Staff already appear to be bracing for cuts, however. Transportation Director Derrick Campbell gave a presentation on what reductions to his department could look like. And during public comment period, Del Norte High School music teacher Dan Sedgwick said he found out Monday that his steel drum band may be eliminated.

“We need to think really carefully about the ramifications of every cut that’s going to be made,” he said, adding that visual and performing arts classes need continuity to survive. “If this class gets cut one year, it’s going to take at least three to get it back to its current level. This class has existed for 26 years and it would be a true shame to see it go away.”

California was financially healthy when 2020 dawned, according to the Department of Finance. Its unemployment was 3.9 percent, the governor’s 2020-21 budget showed a $5.6 billion surplus and $21 billion in reserves, including a projected $18 billion in the state’s rainy day fund. Revenues through March were $1.35 billion above January’s projections as well.

That changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 478,000 unemployment claims were filed in California in the last one-week reporting period. As of mid-March, 4.2 million claims have been filed. Job loss has occurred disproportionately in the economy’s lower-wage sectors. The Department of Finance also projects an 18 percent unemployment rate for 2020.

The state’s general fund revenues are expected to decline by $41.2 billion below January projections, according to the finance department. This revenue decline means the state’s required funding level for education would be $18.3 billion less than what was originally projected.

As state revenues are declining, the California Department of Finance anticipates $7.1 billion in “caseload increases” supporting health and human services programs as well as $6 billion in expenses, most related to COVID-19.

“(This) will result in an overall budget deficit of approximately $54.3 billion, of which $13.4 billion occurs in the current year and $40.9 billion is in the budget year,” the department’s fiscal report states. “This overall deficit is equal to nearly 37 percent of general fund spending as authorized in the 2019 Budget Act. This is also nearly 3.5 times the revised balance in the Rainy Day Fund ($16 billion).”

Anticipating the “hard decisions” the Del Norte Unified School District Board of Trustees may be forced to make, Campbell said he wanted to supply them with adequate information. Districts are only required to provide transportation if it’s written into a student’s individualized education program or if they’re homeless or a foster youth, Campbell said.

During the last recession in 2007 and 2008, the district considered eliminating general education bus service, charging for it or consolidating routes and limiting service, Campbell said.

“I’m not advocating for changing any of our services,” he said. “I am very proud of our services. We put a lot into making sure our kids are safe and providing the best services to the community as we can.”

If Del Norte Unified eliminated transportation for every student except those who had to have it either through their IEP or because they were homeless or a foster child, buses would have to make a total of 205 stops districtwide, according to Campbell. He said it’s possible that some some students would choose not to take advantage of the service.

As for a pay-to-ride system, Campbell said many school districts charge parents between $325 and $575 annually. Their costs could be reduced if they have additional students in their households. But some districts have to pay debt collection agencies and deny a student transportation if their parents don’t pay their bill.

Also, California has indicated that students who qualify for free and reduced lunch also qualify for free and reduced bus transportation, Campbell said. In Del Norte, an estimated 80 percent of its student population could ride the bus at a reduced cost or for free.

Another consideration when it comes to making potential cut backs is eliminating or consolidating routes. Last year, the route serving Smith River Elementary School was consolidated into one, which has worked well, though students could be on the bus for up to an hour, Campbell said.

Stopping bus transportation to Mountain School in Gasquet is an option, though it wouldn’t result much in savings, Campbell said.

Adjusting the walking distance between schools and a student’s home could also be a possible method of saving the district money. Currently, students living within 1 mile of an elementary school, 1.5 miles of a middle school and 2 miles from Del Norte and Sunset High are considered able to walk to school, Campbell said.
Some districts have adjusted those distances to be up to 1 mile  for elementary school students 2 miles for middle schoolers and 3 miles for high school students, he said.

“We also need to look at safe routes,” Campbell said. “At areas like Redwood School, are there shoulders for students to walk on. The same thing in Smith River and some of our outlying areas. Is there street lighting, a safe place to walk? Those are all things to consider.”

DNUSD’s District 4 representative Charlaine Mazzei recommended having district meetings focused on potential changes to transportation.

“When we start doing budget workshops and coming back to Derrick, if we said, ‘You have to cut your department by 15-20 percent, what would you recommend to us?’” Mazzei said. “Just having (that) for you to think about.”

Though Mazzei pointed out that trustees haven’t been asked to consider potential budget cuts, Sedgwick noted that the steel drum band has performed, both statewide and internationally. It was in the middle of its annual tour this year when the coronavirus shuttered schools, he said. He argued that elective classes are why students go to school and asked the Board to be both careful and sensitive when discussing next year’s budget.

“A joke was already made that $40,000 could be sold because that was the cost of my steel band — that we could save a lot of money by doing that,” Sedgwick said. “I haven’t told my students yet about this cut, but I expect some are going to know about it now after this meeting.”

Concerned by Sedgwick’s comment, Mazzei said she and her colleagues have yet to talk about specific cuts. As the board begins to consider next year’s budget, she said it’s important for the entire community to be involved.

“I want to be mindful that rumors don’t get started and that’s not where we are,” she said.

As district administrators and staff look to the next year and possible reopening, Harris said they’re still crafting a Local Control Accountability Plan, though California Governor Gavin Newsom has pushed the process back until fall 2020 to be approved in December.

“We don’t want to wait that long,” Harris said. “So next week, Tom (Kissinger) is going to hold two community-wide Zoom meetings with breakout rooms for the different regional groups.”

These meetings will be held at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. May 14. The district will also be reaching out to school site councils, teachers, English language and parent committees, Harris said.

The LCAP is a plan for how the district will spend extra funding it receives for English language learners, foster youth, homeless and low-income students. The LCAP accounts for $5.6 million of the district’s budget, Harris said. He pointed that the potential $4 million cut in state funding that DNUSD is projected to take next year most of what it typically budgets in LCAP expenditures.


California Department of Finance Fiscal Update

DNUSD Transportation Presentation


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