MBUSD school board approves layoffs

 

The Board of Education for the Manhattan Beach Unified School District last week approved $3.6 million in budget reductions that will result in the layoff of approximately 38 employees.

The cuts mean that during the next school year classes will be larger, there will be fewer hands-on science classes, fewer music and art classes, and less help for students struggling with reading, science and social and emotional issues. 

Board members deliberated for more than three hours in a boardroom packed with parents and teachers, including some of the educators likely to lose their jobs. The cuts approved in a 4-1 vote reduced many of the district’s most prized educational programs, including elementary music and arts, MakerSpace, and student counseling.

Superintendent Mike Matthews said the district staved off cuts for as long as possible. The district has a structural budget deficit largely caused by increasing pension costs and the failure of the federal government to provide special education funding. 

“This is why we are here,” he said. “And this is nothing new. We’ve had this for a good five or six years. It’s been dwindling down our reserves from 30 percent to the minimum reserves we have now….  We’ve come to the end of our reserves where we have to make some difficult decisions.” 

Employee pension costs have quadrupled in recent years, from $2.9 million in 2011-12 to $12.2 million this fiscal year. Special education has spiked in costs to $24 million annually; MBUSD receives only $6.4 million in federal special ed funding.

Matthews said the district had been waiting for “a miracle” in the form of state funding that did temporarily increase but has again leveled off. 

“If we had one criticism that should come our way, it’s that we haven’t done layoffs before. The reason we are here is that we kept hoping [for that miracle]…. We can’t count on it. We have to keep this district solvent.” 

The district faces declining state funding due to enrollment decreases; state funding is tied to enrollment. Additionally, Governor Gavin Newsom has changed course on a proposed employee Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA), downgrading it in a way that could cost school districts across the state millions. 

“That takes a bad problem and makes it worse,” Matthews said. “It will be more challenging. I keep hoping we get some good news that will let us take more time. I’ve got nothing. Our time is now.” 

Parents implored the board to find ways to save some of the programs slated for reduction, particularly counseling, physical education, and elementary music. 

Cathey Graves, a parent volunteer and vice president of health and wellness at Mira Costa, urged the board not to cut student counseling at the school. 

“What we want you to understand is that Mira Costa is in a crisis,” Graves said. “Based on a recent Beach Cities Health District survey, our 11th graders…40 percent of them are reporting that they are anxious or depressed. Over 20 percent of them have reported having seriously considered committing suicide. And we are aware that a number of children this school year have actually attempted to commit suicide in our school district….In that same survey, 40 percent of students said it’s the counselor they go to in a difficult situation.” 

Board member Jen Fenton took issue with the cuts to both counseling and the new social worker position, which was intended to foster internships and thus be a force multiplier for social and emotional wellness at the high school. 

“It’s something I could have used as a high school student myself, so it’s a very personal issue for me,” Fenton said. “I have a big problem with that.” 

The board, after extensive discussion, arrived at a compromise that departed slightly from the cuts presented by Matthews. Their plan retains the social worker and a vice-principal position at Mira Costa, and reduces the counseling cut from 2.5 positions to 1.5. They increased cuts to PE from 1.8 full-time employees (FTE) to 2.1, science specialists from 1 to 1.7 FTE, and library resource specialists from 1.1 to 2.8 FTE. Additionally, they eliminated the zero period for sixth graders at Manhattan Beach Middle School, which was not originally proposed, eliminated 18.8 proposed unspecified staff positions due to decreased enrollment and increased class sizes in grades 6 to 12. Board member Bill Fournell, who argued for the elimination of zero period at MCHS in lieu of some personnel cuts, was the only vote opposing the compromise motion. 

School board president Jennifer Cochran said most of the cuts were to programs that were added or amplified in recent years. 

“These things we recognized were great needs, and we added them with a lot of care and consideration,” Cochran said. “But they are the extra things we’ve added on. I have no regrets. I keep saying it’s better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all. I look at this, and as hard as it is, as uncomfortable as it is…the feeling is one of gratitude that we added these really important things when we did, and that we did have them. They had set us up for success. It’s not to say these are easy cuts, but I’m looking back thinking, ‘Gosh, it was great while it happened.’”

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