At a tense, chaotic and at-times hostile meeting on Thursday night, the Ravenswood City School District Board of Education approved more than $5 million in budget cuts to remain fiscally solvent in the coming year.
The board approved, on a 4-0 vote with member Marielena Gaona-Mendoza abstaining, the elimination of 83 jobs, primarily classified staff.
The district is facing a multiyear budget shortfall due to years of declining enrollment and a corresponding loss in state revenue, compounded by several years of deficit spending.
As district leadership continued to insist that Ravenswood is not in a financial crisis, parents, staff and community members at the standing-room-only meeting criticized the board and superintendent for mismanaging the budget and being slow to take action. The district now faces tight deadlines imposed by the San Mateo County Office of Education, which provides fiscal oversight for the school district, in order to balance its budget for the next fiscal year.
"The enrollment trends have been there for years," Ruben Abrica, the mayor of East Palo Alto, told the board. "This crisis that's going on right now, you probably could have prevented it three years ago if you had done some planning."
Outraged parents hurled criticisms from the audience at some board members and at Superintendent Gloria Hernandez-Goff out of turn, prompting board President Ana Pulido to use her gavel to regain order of the meeting several times and to ultimately ask one mother to leave the room.
Many parents and staff spoke in support of Ravenswood's preschool program, the Child Development Center (CDC). The majority of staff there — 28 out of 31 positions — could lose their jobs under the cuts the board approved on Thursday, though the district does not plan to close the center.
Hernandez-Goff said Ravenswood can no longer afford to operate the center, so the district is considering whether the county Office of Education or state Department of Education can assume operations. Some parents suggested the district approach the city of East Palo Alto to help run the program.
Multiple board members stated strong support for preserving the CDC's services, which parents described as critical for low-income, working families in East Palo Alto.
Some teachers urged the board to look to the district office for more cuts, arguing that the loss of the identified classified positions, including support staff for teachers, will have a direct impact on students.
The district plans to cut eight certificated management positions, three classified management positions, three classified confidential positions and 54 classified staff from the 2018-19 budget. Cuts will also be made to adjust the amount of special-education services, including psychological support, for which the district contracts with outside agencies proportionally to the number of students served.
The district has said no teachers will lose their jobs, but staff are planning for a reduction in 28 teacher positions through annual attrition and the conservative assumption that a parcel tax that expires in June would not be renewed by voters. The parcel tax funds 13 teaching positions, the equivalent of $1.1 million.
During a presentation on Thursday, San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Anne Campbell also characterized the Ravenswood board as slow to act. Other local districts facing budget woes due to shrinking enrollment — caused primarily by the opening of charter schools and the increasing cost of living in the region — have been more proactive, she said, citing Redwood City School District.
"The difference between Redwood City and Ravenswood right now is that over the last several years the Redwood City board has been making budget cuts as they go through to accommodate the declining enrollment and lack of revenue that's generated," Campbell said.
Ravenswood, which currently enrolls about 2,700 K-8 students, has lost about 1,100 students since 2013, Campbell said. This trend is expected to continue in the coming years. Enrollment drives state revenue, with the amount of funding Ravenswood receives determined by the district's average daily attendance, or the number of days a student attends school in a year divided by the number of instructional days.
The district is spending more than it's receiving and also faces the looming, potential loss of $1.1 million if the parcel tax is not renewed this summer, Campbell said. She warned of the more stringent oversight ahead if the district does not make the cuts required to remain fiscally solvent, including the most extreme outcome that the state would take over running the distric.
Campbell said her office is in touch with the state's Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team, which provides financial assistance to counties and school districts, about Ravenswood's budget.
School leadership defended the district's position and the proposed cuts.
Board Vice President Sharifa Wilson, who said the district "looked at every single area" in the budget for cuts, criticized what she described as "the cannibalistic nature of this district."
"There are people sitting there willing to sacrifice other people," she said, referring to calls for eliminating staff in the district office.
Acknowledging that the board has been talking about the budget since at least the start of this school year, Wilson said she's "not willing to kick the can down the road anymore."
In contrast with Campbell — whose presentation included a photograph of a stormy, foreboding sky with lightning in the background, titled "Ravenswood's current financial picture" — Hernandez-Goff said that "what is happening tonight is not a crisis but rather the application of new fiscal principles that will strengthen the future of our district."
Gaona-Mendoza was the only critical board member. She also urged the district to trim the central administration or contracted services such as public relations. She argued that the cuts as proposed could result in further loss of students.
"When we fail the students, parents are going to go somewhere else," she said.
The other two sitting board members, Marcelino Lopez and Charlie Knight, made no comments throughout the meeting.
Some teachers also blasted the district for not soliciting sufficient input from its unions prior to taking action on the reductions. The proposals were presented to the teachers and classified employee unions in negotiations sessions on Jan. 31, but teachers said it was not enough time to provide feedback.
The district is required to bargain over the effect of any layoffs or a decision to reduce a person's hours, but not the actual layoffs, Chief Budget Official Steve Eichman said.
The school district is required to meet certain deadlines set by the county Office of Education, including to present layoff resolutions to the school board on Feb. 22 in advance of a March 15 legal deadline to notify staff who might lose their jobs.
The board will next discuss the budget at a retreat on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 9 a.m. at the district office, 2120 Euclid Ave., East Palo Alto.