First published in the Feb. 19, 2022, print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Despite a $45.7-billion surplus in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most recent budget proposal, the Burbank Unified School District anticipates large deficits over the next two years, prompting the agency to develop a fiscal stabilization plan that would eliminate teaching and classified employees.
BUSD projects nearly $18.7 million in deficit spending in the 2022-23 fiscal year and about $8.6 the following year due to declines in enrollment and attendance — which the state’s formula for school funding is based on — and a depletion of COVID-19 relief funds.
With some reluctance, the Board of Education unanimously voted, 4-0, to adopt two resolutions Thursday that would eliminate as many as 18 teachers and 11 classified employees, six of which are elementary physical education positions. Vice President Steve Ferguson was not present for the meeting.
“I love my teachers over here,” said Sarah Niemann, assistant superintendent of human resources services, “but unfortunately, as Ms. [Debbie] Kukta discussed, we do have declining enrollment.”
In an effort to address dwindling enrollment throughout the state, the governor recently proposed that school funding be based on attendance from the current academic year, the prior year or an average of the last three years, whichever is highest. The budget proposal allocates more than $100 billion to schools and community colleges for the first time.
However, some of that money will be restricted to specific categorical programs or services due, according to Kukta, assistant superintendent of administrative services, leaving few resources to address increased costs associated with extraordinary inflation levels of 7.5% — the highest in four decades.
Though a cost of living increase could provide more money for schools, it still isn’t enough for many districts — including Burbank Unified — because of the rising costs of pensions and health benefits for employees and unemployment insurance.
“While the revenues are rising because of the [cost of living adjustment], it’s offset by these expenditures increases,” Kukta told the board.
Superintendent Matt Hill encouraged stakeholders to advocate for more funding and said that the governor’s proposal should also include a hold harmless policy that would safeguard districts from enrollment and student headcount declines due to the pandemic and provide funding based on figures prior to COVID-19.
“The three-year rolling average is important because we’re seeing COVID has impacted that, but the hold harmless for this year, that’s something that’s starting to get drowned out of the conversation,” he said. “We need to be very loud about that. This is not a usual year. Last year wasn’t and they did a hold harmless. It doesn’t cost the state any money to do a hold harmless.”
The district has remained afloat the past few years with coronavirus relief money from federal and state governments and has about $21 million accounted for in this year’s budget, but those funds will be depleted over the next two years, putting the district’s finances in dire straits.
“The COVID monies have kind of buffered us and protected us for a few years,” she said. “Had it not been for those monies, we would have probably laid off employees, but we used that to keep class sizes small. But now the COVID money is [gone in the next few years] and what that does is it just keeps us at the minimum reserve levels.”
The district’s plan is to discontinue or reduce 18 teaching positions, 10 of which involve teachers who instruct multiple subjects, two in physical education, two science instructors, two in English, one math teacher and another in art. The move will save the district about $1.62 million next year.
Diana Abasta, a Burbank High School English teacher and president of the local teachers association, expressed concern over the lack of physical education teachers at the elementary level and how the pandemic has affected children’s health and fitness.
“There is no elementary P.E. program led by highly qualified P.E. teachers even though P.E. is written into California state law as a mandatory part of students’ educations,” said Abasta, who also advocated that the district give more help to special education teachers. “Physical activity is one of the ways we help our students maintain social and emotional intelligence. … Highly qualified P.E. teachers are better equipped to handle the teaching of important skills that include balance and coordination as well as the social emotional needs of our students in ways classroom teachers cannot.”
Hill replied that BUSD will continue to brainstorm and work on potential solutions to address the lack of qualified elementary P.E. teachers and special education instructors but added that they are constrained due to the lack of funds.
“It is a reality; we do have a limited budget, and so we have to make difficult choices in this district given those resources,” Hill said.
In addition to teachers, the board approved the elimination of 11 classified employees, which include five physical education positions, four in special education, a health care and instructional assistant for the severely impaired at Stevenson Elementary and an instructional assistant and translator for deaf students at Washington Elementary. BUSD will also reduce the hours of two positions — an instructional assistant at Jefferson Elementary’s child care program and instructional assistant in special education at Dolores Huerta Middle School.
BUSD will continue the conversation about the state budget and the district’s deficit at a workshop on March 8.