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Parents question proposed Rancho Santa Fe School District teacher layoffs

A plan to balance the Rancho Santa Fe School District’s budget by laying off 17 full- and part-time teachers in the 2019-20 school year drew fire from a number of parents at a school board meeting on Thursday, March 14.

The district sent out notices to the teachers by a March 15 deadline to let them know their positions could be cut next fall. State law requires school districts to make the notification. Final notices must be sent by May 15.

The district is proposing the cuts to close an $806,000 budget gap for the next school year, according to Superintendent Donna Tripi, who came to the district in January after serving as principal at La Jolla Elementary School, which is part of the San Diego Unified School District.

At the meeting, Tripi and members of the district administration gave a presentation about the budget, and how the district plans to maintain a high level of classroom instruction in spite of the proposed layoffs.

According to the presentation, the district’s enrollment peaked at 847 in 2003-04, and has declined since then. This year, enrollment stands at 600 students. Since staffing levels have been maintained at 2005-06 levels, Tripi told the board, the district’s per-student spending has increased from $10,334 in 2005-06 to $21,067 in 2018-19, a rise of 204 percent. Projections show student population for the K-8 district dropping to 525 over the next decade.

“All school districts in San Diego are having declining enrollment,” Tripi said.

Although the district has run a budget deficit over the past two years, Tripi said in an email, contributions of about $1 million annually from the Rancho Santa Fe Education Foundation have covered the funding gap. When she came on board earlier this year, the school board tasked Tripi with balancing the budget.

The cuts affect the equivalent of 13.45 full-time positions and include three full-time elementary classroom teachers, along with part-time literacy support personnel, a math coach, media specialist, computer science, art, P.E. earth science and dance instructors. The district will maintain its classroom ratio of one teacher per 20 students.

The cuts are not sitting well with some district parents and community members. Some questioned whether the one-campus, 600-student district should be looking harder at cuts to administrative staff, including whether a superintendent and two principals, one each for the elementary and middle schools, are needed.

“I am quite concerned with the teacher layoffs that are proposed. I have long felt there was a very top-heavy administration at the school,” said Mary McGrath. “I think that is an area that hasn’t been discussed.”

Carole Warren, a former teacher, suggested that one person could serve as both superintendent and principal for the school.

“This school has talented, highly skilled teachers in math and science. Some of these teachers are going to be eliminated. I just don’t get that,” she said.

“It appears these teachers have been reduced to dollars in a budget. That’s disappointing,” said Kiesha Bell.

But Glenn Oratz acknowledged that the district has to deal with its budget deficits.

“Something’s got to give,” Oratz said. “Either you cut expenses or you raise revenue. We have to be realistic. We can’t have declines in revenue and have the same level of resources.”

But Paul Seitz told the board, “You have no respect for the teachers.”

Board president Sarah Neal said the plan to balance the district’s budget is still being evaluated. “No one ever wants to let go of staff, none of us wants to do that.” She said the district is carefully considering its options, as evidenced by the March 15 preliminary layoff notices being sent to teachers. “That’s a lot of notice, that’s not in haste.”

In her email, Tripi responded to questions about potential administrative cuts.

“There may be additional changes recommended when a detailed review of administrative offices is completed,” Tripi wrote.

Speakers also questioned why the district is looking to balance its budget in a single year, instead of making more gradual cuts.

“This is the second year of deficits and with declining enrollment at certain grades, the Board asked me to propose a balanced budget for the 19-20 school year,” Tripi wrote.