Williams Unified approves budget amid concerns over Trump

Williams Unified School District officials blamed the President of the United States for the district having to “tighten its belt,” but ultimately gave in to pressure from teachers and parents not to lay off paraeducators who prepare kindergarteners for first grade.

Although the school board previously tabled the elimination of four support positions until 2018-19, the cut list resurfaced on Thursday’s agenda.

School officials said the cut was needed to fund a special assignment teacher next year to train staff on the technology associated with the district’s new SOAR educational program.

The school board, however, ultimately voted to do both when it approved the district’s $15.7 million 2017-18 budget, which gives teachers and management staff a 3.4 percent pay raise, and allows for the hiring of a school nurse, a mental health counselor, and the certificated technology teacher to work outside the classroom on staff development.

“This year, we are solvent in our budget, but next year we’re not sure,” said Trustee George W. Simmons. “You’ve got Trump screwing around with the money, and you got the governor screwing around with the money, and we may get it back in the following year, or we may not get it back in the following year. There has to be a tightening of the belt.”

School officials said they were concerned about President Donald Trump’s proposed federal budget, which could reduce education funding by 13.5 percent beginning Oct. 1.

Trump’s proposal, although not yet approved by the Senate, cuts programs and grant funding for teacher training, after-school and summer care, mental health services, and aid to low-income students, while boosting money for school vouchers and charter schools to allow parents more flexibility in school choice.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget boosts education spending for 2017-18, but educators fear it won’t be enough to offset future state and federal cuts.

Simmons said Williams Unified has relied heavily on grant funding to support programs and staff positions, knowing that the funding would eventually dry up.

“Paraeducators are important, but so are teachers,” he said.

But Kindergarten teachers said cutting support staff at the lower level should never be an option, because test scores show the district’s kindergarten program, which includes in-class support and intervention for struggling English language learners, is highly successful.

“Kindergarten results are mind blowing,” said teacher Keri Lovelady. “We went from one proficient student (at the beginning of the school year) to 86 at the end of the year. We are sitting on a group of kids that’s reading, and are ready for the demands of first grade.”

Frank Jerome, the district’s director of fiscal services, said the 2017-18 budget includes $1.2 million in federal revenue, which is up from last year.

However, the majority of the district’s funding (13.3 million) comes from the state through the Local Control Funding Formula, which will see a $391,658 increase over last year, Jerome said.

Forty percent of the district’s $15.7 million budget will go to teachers’ salaries, 13 percent to classified salaries, 19 percent to employee benefits, 7 percent to books and supplies, and 10 percent to buildings and other expenditures.

Board President Silvia Vaca, the only dissenting vote in favor of eliminating the paraeducator positions to fund the technology teacher, said it was a difficult decision for her to make, but that education funding remains too uncertain not to be cautious.

“As a board, we are sitting in a difficult position,” Vaca said. “We have to look at the budget, we have to look at what’s coming, and we have to look at what’s going on. I am a parent of two children in this district as well. It’s nothing against the students, and it’s nothing against the parents, but sometimes we have to make difficult decisions. We have to look at everything.”