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SB City Schools “Fiscally Solvent” despite funding shortfalls Leaders credit conservative approach to spending

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By Chris Levister

San Bernardino City Unified School District (SBCUSD) which educates more than 52,000 students remains fiscally solvent, according to new superintendent Dr. Dale Marsden. That’s good news in an era of rapid fire funding cuts to California’s public schools - $17 billion in statewide budget cuts over the past two years.

"Overall we're looking good,” said school board member Danny Tillman. The District began the 2012-2013 school year with a new superintendent, a balanced budget and 22 new school principals. Based on current projects, the district will meet its financial obligations for the current fiscal year. Reductions through attrition, including retirements, are helping to keep the district stable. While the District is not affiliated with the City of San Bernardino, which recently filed for bankruptcy protection the “cheery’ financial assessment was welcome news for jittery school employees and families worried about the potential negative impact in the classroom. “We have had a sound, balanced budget for more than a decade,” said Chief Business and Financial Officer Mohammad Z. Islam. “For years, our approach has been to plan for a rainy day.”

The District has received positive budget certification from the County Superintendent of Schools since 2000.

During some of the most critical financial times public education has faced, it pays to have Mohammad Islam on your side, said Tillman.

“It is because of Mohammad’s fiscal responsibility that the District has ‘not’ been forced to make deep cuts in recent years. The cuts that have been made have been kept as far away from the classroom as possible,” said Tillman.

In late February school board officials struggled to cut more than $22 million from its budget. In March 224 final layoff notices were approved during an emergency board meeting. The jobs ranged from clerical, secretaries, and custodial workers. The cuts also included positions in its special education segment. Sending large numbers of “final” layoff notices and then rehiring those people before the start of the year has become a dreaded annual ritual in recent years. “Staying financially sound is a delicate balancing act,” said Tillman.

“Eighty percent of our budget is personnel. We know it’s a painful process however, if we hire more teachers than we have money to pay for, that’s not only unfair to the employees, but it’s a recipe for financial disaster,” said Tillman.

“If state funding is cut by $22 million, we have $22 million less to spend. The bottom line is by insisting on a conservative approach to budget decision making we remain fiscally solvent.”

This school year, there are fewer teachers in the classroom, less per pupil dollars and an increase in the number of students per class. Before the recession, California spent more per student on K-12 education than most other states, ranking 23rd in the nation. In 2010, it ranked 35th, according to the latest figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau. As the state deals with perennial budget deficits, per pupil spending on K-12 education grew by just 2 percent from 2007 to 2010, much slower than the 10 percent rate of growth seen nationwide. All told, California spent about $9,375 on education per student in 2010, roughly 12 percent below the national average. Tillman said the severity of future per pupil spending cuts will also depend on voters. In November, a proposition will be put forward for special education funding. If it doesn't pass, the district will have to consider another $39 million in cuts. August 10, Dr. Marsden held a Gathering of Excellence meeting at the Coussoulis Arena, at Cal State San Bernardino.

A proponent of collaborative learning, Marsden told approximately 1,000 employees his vision includes parent, community, and school employee engagement.

“We serve one of the toughest districts in the U.S., and with the work that we’re going to do, we will change the face of education,” Marsden said. During his presentation, Marsden showed a slide that stated; Formula for Excellence: Mastery + Autonomy + Purpose = Excellence. One of the most important changes Marsden said will be a renewed focus on subjects such as science, social studies and the arts. In many schools, they received less attention in the push to improve math and reading scores. He told listeners he believes that divergent thinking is a way in which students can explore possible answers as well as possible questions. He also believes that greater learning happens in groups; whether it is teachers collaborating on effective teaching models or students engaging in academic dialogue to solve problems in math, science, reading, and the arts.

Marsden said the District is starting off the school year with 22 new principals to fill positions at nearly one third of its schools.

“These leaders will play a critical role as our district and our schools work to build a shared vision, which strengthens our mission to ensure all San Bernardino and Highland students are college and career-ready,” he said. The new principals are filling positions left vacant by their predecessors, many of whom decided to take the district's retirement incentives at the end of the last school year. The 22 new principals include principals Elizabeth Cochrane-Benoit and Alan Kay at the newly opened Norton Elementary and Indian Springs High Schools, respectively. The other 20 openings were created by principals retiring or getting hired away from their school.

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