By J.P. Crumrine Editor and Marshall Smith Staff Reporter

Editor’s note: Dr Steven Lowder, the superintendent of Hemet Unified School District (HUSD) and HUSD Trustee Bill Sanborn met with Town Crier staff on Wednesday, Sept. 21. This will be the first of several articles relating the school officials’ views of the district, its budget challenges and its quality of education.

The HUSD budget is intimately entwined with the state’s financial condition, making it difficult to discuss the district’s condition without referencing the state’s actions.
HUSD budget condition

In its June budget, the state increased its revenue projections by $4 billion. If these revenues fail to appear, the Legislature specified a series of cuts in the state’s enacted budget that will have to take place. A large portion of these reductions will be in state educational funding.

With no surprises or unexpected changes, Lowder is confident that HUSD can complete the current fiscal year ending June 30, 2012 without any changes to staffing levels or the length of the school year.

“It all depends on how big a cut [would come from the state’s failure to garner the projected $4 billion],” Sanborn said. The effect could be an additional $5.5 million cut in funding for HUSD, Lowder said.

While he believes the district could absorb the funding cut this year, continuing lower funding in subsequent years would require some reaction from the district. “We couldn’t sustain the cut for many more years,” he added.

Both men said that if the cuts continued, staffing levels would again be vulnerable. But there is no present plan to shorten the current school year, they added.

Both men praised Vince Christakos, assistant superintendent for business services, for his financial models that help the district understand and project the consequences of state cuts, lower revenues or even changes to grant streams. “He’s doing an incredible job,” Sanborn said. Lowder explained that Christakos’ three-to-five-year projection models allow the district to drop in funding source changes and project out how they will affect all areas of HUSD operation.

Class size
If the district reduces its staffing, administrative and teaching, Lowder and Sanborn acknowledged the consequent effect on class sizes.

“We have an entire generation of teachers used to 20 kids in a room,” Sanborn said. “For the first time, it’s 30:1. We’re asking them to do a new job now [for which they’re not equipped by experience].”

The district has tried being more creative with its use of categorical grants and its employment of computer-based instruction, according to Lowder. The district has purchased seven laptop computers for every kindergarten through fifth-grade class, he said.

“This will allow some of the students to work independently, while teachers can worked more closely with some of the other kids,” he explained. “In effect this cuts down the student to teacher ratio.”

Hemet Teachers Association

Lowder said that going forward with budget planning and consequent decisions will depend upon the results of future negotiations with the Hemet Teachers Association. Existing union concessions expire in June 2012. Lowder stated that new discussions with the union would not begin until January.

Both anticipate the new negotiations will be tough. But until the final state funding levels are available, neither official wanted to offer a projection of the controversial issues and positions.