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MBUSD Board Approves Reductions for 2020/21 School Year

Feb 27, 2020 01:24PM ● By Jeanne Fratello
The Manhattan Beach Unified School District's school board last night approved $3.6 million in reductions for the coming school year, a move that board members said was both painful and necessary.

MBUSD Superintendent Mike Matthews said that the board had held off as long as possible in hopes of finding another source of revenue to bridge the gap.

"The reason we're here is that we just kept hoping that the miracle would happen," said Matthews. "I would love to be able to say 'Let's put this off one more year,' but we can't do that...Our backs are indeed up against the wall."

Reductions Across the Board

The reductions would span across elementary and secondary schools, affecting both classified and certificated employees. In almost every case, programs were trimmed back rather than being eliminated entirely, in the hopes that they would be able to be restored at a later time.

The largest cut involved reducing staffing for enrollment by 11 full-time equivalent employees, resulting in $1.1 million in savings. (This reduction is one that the district would need to take anyway because of decreasing enrollment.)

Other actions included increasing class sizes in grades 6-12, and reducing FTEs for P.E. at elementary schools, library resource specialists, counseling, MakerSpace, elementary arts, music assistants, reading specialists, science specialists, and program specialists.

The board also eliminated a certificated librarian and a licensed clinical social worker at the high school, cut three district-wide Teachers on Special Assignment (TOSAs), and cut .5 FTE for an elementary music teacher. 

Through a last-minute amendment, the board agreed to make slightly greater reductions in elementary school P.E., library resource specialists, and science specialists in order to avoid cutting an assistant principal from the high school and to make a slightly smaller reduction in the number of counselors at the high school (cutting 1.5 FTE instead of 2.5 FTE).

Board President Jennifer Cochran noted that many of the programs that were cut had been added and were new to MBUSD since the recession of 2007/08.

"As hard as it is, I also am feeling fortunate that we added these really important special things when we did, and we have benefited from them," said Cochran. "I'm thinking it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

Board member Karen Komatinsky added that these difficult budget deliberations have been "a constant conversation."

"This isn't new, although it may be new to some of you [in the audience]," said Komatinsky.

She said that she was open to any and all suggestions of how the board might increase revenue. "If you have ideas, come and talk to me. I am all in. As far as I'm concerned, anything is on the table."

The board approved the reductions on a vote of 4 to 1, with board member Bill Fournell as the only "no" vote.

Parents, Teachers Speak Out

The somber meeting was filled to standing capacity with parents, teachers, and community members who had come to ask that various programs be spared.

Theresa Tower, a P.E. teacher at Pacific Elementary School, told the board that P.E. teachers are the only teachers that students see for five straight years, giving students consistency and quality social-emotional learning opportunities. 

If physical education is left to the regular teachers, she said, "it becomes recess" - an unorganized outdoor time where "the strongest kid gets the ball."

Ezra Holland, a Grand View Elementary School parent, concurred. "The lessons learned in P.E. stand you in good stead for your academic learning and physical well-being." 

Parent Andrea Custer urged the board not to cut music programs. She said she had investigated public and private schools within an hour's drive of Manhattan Beach, and none had the "robust" music education program that Mira Costa High School has.

She added that the elementary music programs are a significant building block in creating the successful high school music program. "It's like Jenga - if you pull out that bottom block, you know what's going to happen."

Parents Cathey Graves and Kathy Crawford spoke on behalf of saving counseling at Mira Costa. Graves said that based on a recent Beach Cities Health District survey, 40 percent of Mira Costa's 11th graders are anxious or depressed and nearly 20 percent had thought about or considered suicide.

"Forty percent of students say that it's the counselor they go to in a difficult situation," added Graves. "Let's get help for our students before it's too late."

Matthews thanked audience members for their thoughtful comments. "This whole process has been remarkably civil," he said. "People get the problem. No one wants a hard solution like this. But we have to make this decision."

MBUSD Budget Structural Problems

MBUSD has long been caught in a structural funding trap. The district is one of the lowest-funded in the state, based on property tax calculations made through Prop. 13 in the 1970s. Additionally, it receives the second lowest amount of funding in L.A. County through California's Local Control Funding Formula, which provides supplemental dollars for students who are English language learners, foster youth, or free and reduced lunch recipients.

For 2020/21, MBUSD expects to see revenue growth of $130 per student under the Local Control Funding Formula. However, that increase will be wiped out by the growth in mandated expenses. The district faces increasing costs (per student) of $90 for STRS (State Teachers' Retirement System) increases, $80 for PERS (Public Employees' Retirement System) increases, $107 for step-and-column increases, $95 for health and welfare increases, plus additional increases for salaries and special education. 

Over the past five years, the district has reduced expenditures by over $2 million in professional development, instructional materials, technology, and other departments.

However, rising costs have been further complicated by the governor reducing the COLA adjustment from 3 percent to 2.29 percent in his most recent budget. "That's a killer," said Matthews. "What was already bad - it will be more challenging. Now is the time to make reductions."

Matthews referenced a recent L.A. Times article asserting that the California Lottery has been short-changing schools in violation of its mandate. "Even if we got that [lottery] money, it would amount to $36,000 per year," so it would not single-handedly solve the district's problems, he said.


At least one parent had questioned why the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation (MBEF) couldn't step in to fill the gap or deplete its endowment. However, school officials agreed that applying MBEF funds to fix a structural solution would simply perpetuate the cycle and that a structural fix was needed.

"[MBUSD] is truly in a position that is a structural deficit that needs a major fix," said Hilary Mahan, executive director of MBEF. "Right now the only fix is to cut something we love."

Mahan added that the community needed to work together to find ways to fix a funding structure that is "inadequate across the board." She mentioned lobbying in Sacramento, increasing a parcel tax, or looking to other sources of revenue. "We cannot simply rely on passing the hat," she said. 

"There's no one solution," said Matthews, adding that MBEF is part of the equation but the district would have to look to other revenue streams. 

Parent Kelly Ifergan, who said her family had moved from the Bay Area to Manhattan Beach because of the schools, seemed to sum up parents' frustration when she told the board, "It seems comical that we have to do this in a place like Manhattan Beach."

The board will meet again on March 4 and March 25 to initiate the legally required steps to begin the layoff process for employees.

Meanwhile, the city has designated March 21-28 as Support Our Schools week, in which local businesses will be leading efforts to give back to schools through MBEF throughout the week.

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