West Contra Costa teachers union president Demetrio Gonzalez and other union representatives address the school board about budget cuts on Dec. 11, 2019. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

Like most districts across California, West Contra Costa Unified gets extra state funding for vulnerable students, including those who are English learners, in foster care or from low-income families.

Yet, those are the very students who could suffer the most when the district makes nearly $50 million in cuts to close its budget gaps for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, says a coalition of advocates. Those cuts are expected to include layoffs.

“Cuts should not be borne disproportionately by our students, and front-line school staff and services that meet high-need student needs should be preserved,” coalition members said in a letter to district leaders. To ensure transparency, the group urged the district to clearly identify “what will be cut, with which funds, at which school sites and for which student groups, specifically at the highest-need and lowest-performing schools.”

The group, which includes the Public Advocates law firm, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said the district which includes Richmond and surrounding communities — should cut only programs or services paid for with the extra funds that don’t actually help high-needs students.

District officials had hoped that the governor’s proposed 2020-21 budget released Jan. 10 would bring new revenues.

But, it turns out that Gov. Gavin Newsom is suggesting a cost-of-living adjustment of 2.29 percent instead of the 3 percent that West Contra Costa and other districts statewide had expected. The difference will cost the district $2 million this year and compound to $4 million over the next two years, officials said.

Final word on the aid will come in June after the budget makes its way through the state Legislature and final negotiations with the governor.

The board, which will consider the budget on Jan. 15, expects to approve an unspecified amount of budget cuts in March, and to finalize total cuts in June, when it adopts its 2020-21 budget.

The board adopted a revised 2019-20 budget last month that showed a deficit of $35 million that is expected to grow to nearly $43 million next year. That total includes use of a one-time state preschool grant of $4.5 million that is not expected to be available in the future.

To cover its deficit, the district expects to spread its total cuts of nearly $48 million over two years. The district is actually in better shape than it could have been because it has reserves for retiree benefits that it will use — $15.6 million this year and $15.8 million next year. In the future, the district expects to replenish those funds, as its budget picture improves, said Tony Wold, associate superintendent for business services.

For 2020-21, Wold expects the district to cut a minimum of $6 million from contracts and other non-salary items, about $4 million from management staff and an additional $2 million from school site budgets. The district expects to negotiate $20 million in cuts with its unions for next year — including layoffs — followed by an additional $15.8 million in 2021-22.

The district has not yet identified the positions or total number of layoffs that may be required. In response to advocates for African American students who are frustrated by the low overall academic achievement of this group, the district may make an additional $7 million in cuts in 2022-23 in other areas to redirect funding to services for those students, Wold said. 

He is recommending $821,476 in cuts from the superintendent’s office and business services department, including reductions for outside contracts, legal expenses and consultants. He plans to bring recommended cuts to district office administrator positions by Jan. 29, along with more non-salary reductions in other district departments by the end of next month.

The district last month asked for feedback about possible cuts to be implemented next fall through an online survey that a student advocacy organization and union leaders criticized as “divisive,” saying it “overwhelmingly puts student-centered services on the chopping block without any context, any grounded methodology and without integration of student-centered and student-driven data.” The survey was open to anyone, including parents, students, staff and community members.

More than 1,400 people completed the survey, including 41 percent who were parents, 28 percent teachers, 10 percent students, 10 percent community members, 8 percent “classified” staff who are not teachers or administrators and 3 percent administrators, according to a presentation Wold will deliver to the board on Wednesday.

Respondents were asked to indicate if they were “comfortable” with nearly two dozen suggested budget cuts. They were also free to write in their own suggestions.

Most urged the district to avoid cutting student-related spending like school-based funding and services for those struggling to read.

Ideas that received the most support were:

  • Cuts to central office and school administrators;
  • Replacing “door to door” service with centralized pick-up locations where possible for special education transportation;
  • Reducing high school courses with low enrollment;
  • Eliminating some non-mandatory student testing.

Least supported suggestions were:

  • Reducing school site funding;
  • Cuts to learning centers that serve special education and struggling students;
  • Increasing class sizes;
  • Slashing centralized support for visual and performing arts.

Since May, West Contra Costa Unified has been working with the Contra Costa County Office of Education to ensure it maintains fiscal solvency. To fix its ongoing structural deficit, it must make reductions that “will be painful,” said county spokesman Terry Koehne. “But they’re also necessary to bring the district back into balance.”

The teachers union is pushing the district to negotiate its layoff plans before the March 15 deadline to send out pink slips, said Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union.

Union leaders asked the board last month to keep cuts as far away from students as possible. They urged the district to be honest about mistakes that led to the deficit, for cuts to start with contracts and central office management, for better accountability systems to prevent deficit-spending in the future, and to ask the community for its ideas on what to cut.

“We have to continue to engage staff members, labor, students and families in a genuine way so that they feel that they are part of the solution to this problem,” said Richmond High Principal Jose DeLeon, who represents the West Contra Costa Administrators Association. “We believe we will get out of this crisis together.”

* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.