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Power crisis contributes to schools budget woes

By Ben LumpkinSpecial to The Daily Planet
Monday February 26, 2001

Skyrocketing energy costs, teacher pay raises and growing enrollments are just a few reasons the Berkeley Unified School District is facing a budget crunch in the fiscal year beginning July 1, according to a financial report released last week. 

The district could face a shortfall of nearly $5 million, according to a first estimate of the fiscal 2002 budget presented to the district board Wednesday. The board has scheduled a special meeting for March 5 to consider ways to pare back next year’s budget.  

District Interim Superintendent Steve Goldstone said the numbers represent a “worst case scenario” and are likely to improve before the final 2002 budget is presented to the board in June.  

Since 85 percent of the district’s funding comes from the state, much of the estimates are based on a preliminary state budget issued last month, Goldstone said.  

The state budget numbers have a history of improving as the date of their implementation nears, he added. In the current year, the budget proposed by Gov. Gray Davis last January grew by several billion dollars before it was implemented last summer, Goldstone said.  

But things might not turn out so well this year because of budget pressures generated by California’s energy crisis, Goldstone said. 

The district has watched its own expenditures for natural gas double during the current year and expects another 100 percent increase next year, Goldstone said. Electricity costs for the district could climb by as much as 50 percent next year, according to financial report. 

In the year 2000, the district budgeted $1.9 million for utilities expenses — including electricity, water, sewage, gas and garbage services. Next year it expects to spend $2.8 million for utilities.  

“That’s the big surprise right now,” said John Selawsky, board director. 

Selawsky said it was not unusual for the district to face multi-million dollar shortfalls in the first budget estimate, but added that this year’s numbers made him “a little nervous.” 

Selawsky said the district is facing higher health care premiums for its employees and higher salary expenses as a result of a new teachers union contract. A parcel tax created to fund smaller class sizes is no longer generating enough money to meet the district’s class size reduction needs, he added.  

“As teachers salaries increase and overhead increases ... we can fund fewer and fewer teachers out of that pool of money,” Selawsky said. 

While the district has reduced class sizes to a maximum of 20 students from kindergarten through third grade, it has yet to meet its goal of limiting higher elementary school grade classes to 25 students and secondary classes to 27 students. 

If the current numbers don’t improve, Goldstone said, the board will have to make cuts elsewhere in the budget to meet its class size reduction goals next year. 

Goldstone said the district is already looking at several ways to cut this year’s expenses to help reduce the shortfalls in next year’s budget. If employees are lost through retirement, the district may opt to leave the positions open, he said. The district’s purchases of general supplies will also be analyzed with a view to saving money. 

In the effort to balance the budget by June, Goldstone said the district will do everything it can to avoid cutting academic programs or laying employees off. 

“We want to keep cuts as far away from the classroom as we can so we don’t hurt kids,” he said.