Does Santa Ana Unified have the money to save hundreds of jobs it cut?
It was as if the clock struck midnight and Cinderella suddenly went deaf.
The vexing tone came late in the evening of July 8 at the Santa Ana Unified School District board meeting, when the board narrowly voted to wipe out most of its non-teaching staff in order to balance its budget. But those meant to hear it loudest couldn't quite absorb what had just been said.
“The cuts were approved,” board member Rosie Avila said into her microphone. “I think they're stunned,” Avila, who voted against the cuts, said into the microphone again.
The now-familiar crew of mostly older, motherly women—many in light-blue T-shirts reading, “Librarians, Endangered Species”—and other district employees who have crowded the board meetings since late June, shifted in their seats and looked blankly at one another. Their years of service in music classrooms, health clinics, front offices and school libraries had vanished, much like the storybook carriage.
And there was no fairy godmother or handsome prince to make it all better. Hours of pleading—and even a cameo appearance by Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michelle Martinez—failed to turn back the tide initiated in late June when the district slipped into its budget the approval of “new job descriptions,” essentially collapsing hundreds of full-time non-teaching positions into multidisciplinary part-time positions with no benefits (See “Benefits In Doubt,” July 4).
It turns out, however, the district may have the money to save those jobs—which number anywhere from 800 to 1,500 (the district didn't respond to repeated requests from the Weekly for the actual number) at a cost of $13 million. Some district officials have said the funds should be held onto for a “rainy day.”
“I would say this qualifies as a rainy day. It's pouring outside,” says board member John Palacio.
The money—from two big pots estimated at about $8 million each and considered “one-time-only” funds that the state would not replenish—would pay for all the threatened positions for at least a year.
Board member Jose Hernandez dis-agrees with Palacio. “If we use that money right now, it's not going to resolve our budget problem with you guys next year,” he told employees in the audience. “We will have that problem next year and will not have that one-time money.”
Using the money now would give people at least more than a month's time to figure out what to do with their mortgages, childcare, health care and other family costs, Palacio argues.
Ron Murrey, associate superintendent for business services for SAUSD, acknowledged during a board-meeting exchange with Palacio that money from both funds could be used. But in the case of one pot, which the state normally restricts for the funding of specific programs, Murrey said the Orange County Department of Education recommended against using the $8.3 million, since the state has yet to approve whether it can be used generally. If the state does approve such a use, Murrey says, it would be a one-time deal, and he thinks it would be wiser for the district to save the money.
In the case of the other fund, called “Fund 17,” which the district has chosen to put money into (they are not required to do so by state or federal law), Murrey was more ambiguous. He acknowledged that money was unrestricted and said the board could decide to have it released. (Repeated requests to speak with Murrey to find out whether the district would consider using any ?of those funds to save the lost jobs were denied.)
District spokesperson Angela Burrell says cuts like this are affecting all districts and that SAUSD's declining enrollment has contributed to the shearing of its staff.
Santa Ana Unified is the biggest district in the county, with more than 54,000 students and an operating budget of more than $552 million. Capistrano Unified—OC's second-largest district, with 51,000 students—recently eliminated only 62 full-time and 67 part-time employees. However, Garden Grove Unified, the third largest in the county with 48,000 students, didn't cut any of its 2,647 full- and part-time positions, even though it is also facing enrollment declines and has a $515 million budget.
Burrell says things could change at any time regarding the job cuts, but she couldn't confirm whether the district will use either of the big funds to bring back hundreds of fired employees.