Teachers, parents: Funds will disappear, but the need won’t

Michelle Mitchell • The Desert Sun • May 23, 2010

Coachella Valley school districts last year received a combined $45.8 million in federal stimulus funds, part of which was used to save or add nearly 240 jobs this school year, including about 180 teaching jobs.

The cash provided a financial lifeline to districts struggling with budget shortfalls of $8 million to $16 million for next school year.

But because the stimulus is short term and the money must be spent by September 2011, the three districts are still severely cutting programs and teachers.

“The bottom line is it helped save jobs and it helped the district from going into a greater downward spiral,” said Ricardo Medina, superintendent of Coachella Valley Unified. That district cut about $8 million from its 2009-10 budget and is working to fill a $16 million hole for 2010-11.

“It would have been catastrophic if we did not receive that money.”

Palm Springs Unified Superintendent Lorri McCune called the stimulus money “huge.”

“The cuts would have been much more severe had we not had the money that came from the federal government,” she said.

“We feel even just keeping people employed for one more year obviously makes a huge impact for them and, certainly for us, more teachers makes a difference,” she said.

The money helped limit increases to class sizes and provided intervention teachers and extra training.

Districts that used this extra money to save jobs — an ongoing cost — face falling off a “funding cliff” at the end of next school year, when stimulus money disappears and the state budget is likely to still fall far short of expectations.

“It definitely does create a funding cliff, but we’ve been trying to prepare for that,” said Desert Sands Unified director of fiscal services Karen Stone. “We’re trying to save all the nickels and dimes for this next year. Whatever we can scrape up.”

Congress approved the $787 billion federal stimulus bill — known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — on Feb. 11, 2009, to create jobs nationwide to fight off the ongoing effects of the deepening recession.

Valley school districts received anywhere from $21 million to $41 million less over the past two years than they would have if the state continued paying at 2008-09 levels, officials said.

Each school district received $13.7 million to $18 million in stimulus funding to spend through September 2011.

The federal dollars were doled out in three separate pools, each with specific mandates:

• One dedicated to special education.
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• Another for students in low-income schools.

• A third to avoid layoffs and improve teacher quality.

Desert Sands Unified chose to spend the entire amount of two of the stimulus sources in 2009-10 — the Title I funds dedicated to low-income students and the more generalized award called the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund.

The district used those two to fund salary and benefits for 118.5 positions, as well as professional development and student tutoring.

“We have to pay back interest earned on federal (stimulus) money, so it was a decision to use our federal stream of money this year,” Stone said.

In one period, interest paid on the stimulus funding cost the district $40,000, Stone said.

“It can be considerable,” she said. “It really digs into what earnings we do have.”

About 40 percent of California school districts also chose to spend the bulk of stimulus money in 2009-10 alone, according to a survey by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Palm Springs and Coachella Valley unifieds chose to split those funds more equally over the two years.

“It buys us a little more time,” Palm Springs Unified Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Jim Novak said. “It saved those jobs for two years with the hope that things get better and we may not have to cut them.”

Palm Springs Unified used the stimulus funds to add or save 53 positions both in the classroom and in custodial and maintenance work.

All but one assistant principal position will be funded in 2011 as well.

“Anything makes a difference,” Arlene Montoya, a Palm Springs mother of two, said outside Vista Del Monte Elementary. “It’s going to be harder on the kids.”
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Fewer teachers mean more crowded classes and less attention spent with individual students. Average class sizes in the valley have increased by as much as nine students and will be as high as 33 students in elementary school. Secondary classes can reach 40 students or higher.

Palm Springs added intervention teachers at four elementary and four middle schools with the funding to help struggling students.

Pre- and post-tests of students at Two Bunch Palms Elementary in Desert Hot Springs working with this intervention teacher showed positive growth, Principal Arlan Anderson said.

He expects that will translate to higher test scores for the school, but in the next year or two, that stimulus-funded position will be gone.

“The need’s not going to disappear,” Anderson said. It’s frustrating to know a program works, but not be able to fund it, he said.

“We’ve got the model in our heads so when categorical (funding) comes back … that’s certainly what we’ll do.”

Coachella Valley budgeted the two funds to save 31 elementary teaching positions and keep class sizes down.

That number is expected to rise because the district just received word it must spend 75 percent of the stabilization fund before it receives the next payment, rather than the 50 percent the district planned for, district Business Manager John Ramont said Wednesday.

The Title I money is expected to fund teachers again in 2010-11, but the rising cost of benefits and increasing teacher salaries mean it may not fund the same number of teachers, said Jamie Brown, assistant superintendent of business services for Coachella Valley Unified.
Future funding uncertain

Stimulus funds have paid for teachers, aides and custodial staff at three school districts.

They provided additional training for teachers and helped keep class sizes smaller.

But they will be gone in a year, leaving districts in an even more difficult position in 2011 if the state funding does not increase substantially.

“We’re hoping for the best and, over the course of this year, we have to continue to plan for the worst,” Novak said.

The three school districts this spring have already laid off 225 teachers, about 90 classified staff members and trimmed summer school, adult education and transportation for 2010-11.

“There is a hope and a prayer left,” Medina said. “These choices, they’re difficult enough as it is right now, but they’ll be even more difficult in the future if we have to continue this path even one more year.”

Fewer teachers mean more crowded classes and less attention spent with individual students. Average class sizes in the valley have increased by as much as nine students and will be as high as 33 students in elementary school. Secondary classes can reach 40 students or higher.

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Palm Springs added intervention teachers at four elementary and four middle schools with the funding to help struggling students.

Pre- and post-tests of students at Two Bunch Palms Elementary in Desert Hot Springs working with this intervention teacher showed positive growth, Principal Arlan Anderson said.

He expects that will translate to higher test scores for the school, but in the next year or two, that stimulus-funded position will be gone.

“The need’s not going to disappear,” Anderson said. It’s frustrating to know a program works, but not be able to fund it, he said.

“We’ve got the model in our heads so when categorical (funding) comes back … that’s certainly what we’ll do.”

Coachella Valley budgeted the two funds to save 31 elementary teaching positions and keep class sizes down.

That number is expected to rise because the district just received word it must spend 75 percent of the stabilization fund before it receives the next payment, rather than the 50 percent the district planned for, district Business Manager John Ramont said Wednesday.

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